Open Reporting: Inside the Capitol
This post is part of our Open Reporting at CALmatters, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them, while also inviting you to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research. Our goal: more transparent and effective journalism. We welcome your feedback.
Asking the government to release public records is a standard part of being a journalist.
Typically we make these requests with a formal letter using boilerplate legal language to explain what we want and why it’s public information under California law. We send the letter off to a government administrator who decides whether to release the documents, and then replies with an equal dose of legalese. It’s a dry and impersonal exchange.
I’ve done it this way dozens of times in my 15 years as a reporter. But recently, I tried something different: Instead of making a legal argument to a bureaucrat, I made a moral appeal directly to the Legislature’s elected leaders.
The moment seemed right for a different approach after nearly 150 women signed an open letter this fall complaining of rampant sexual harassment in the state Capitol. Legislative leaders responded by pledging to address the problem, yet their staff quickly began rejecting reporters’ requests for documents that would help the public assess it. Will politicians’ promises to change an institutional culture that has allowed harassment to fester include exposing misconduct the Legislature is aware of in its own ranks? I am making the case that it should.
For decades, the Legislature has shielded evidence of its own misbehavior because it’s allowed to under the open records law it passed in 1975. In writing California’s Legislative Open Records Act, legislators actually protected themselves from the same scrutiny they impose on other government officials. Most other government agencies must release information about investigations of officials who are found culpable of wrongdoing. The law for California lawmakers, though, says they are not required to release “records of complaints to or investigations conducted by” the Legislature.
But the law doesn’t say the Legislature is prohibited from releasing the information—and that’s the argument I made in letters last month to the leaders of the Senate and Assembly. I asked for complaints, investigative reports and disciplinary records in a narrow set of cases—only those in which investigators determined that the complaint was substantiated. In other words, just the cases in which a government official was found to have done something wrong. Other reporters have requested similar information, too.
In my letter to Senate leader Kevin de León, I contended that transparency was vital to build public trust. “Senator de León,” I wrote, “you have said that the Senate ‘is a sacred place of public service and it must also be a safe place for everyone who works here.’ As you take steps to protect victims and increase public confidence, don’t you want to show Californians specifically where the problems lie? Truly making the Senate a safe workplace requires publicly holding to account any Senate employees or elected members whose actions have been shown, through investigation, to be harassing or fear-inducing.”
I made a similar appeal to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, noting that his wife, a former legislative aide, was among the dozens of women who signed the original letter condemning the Capitol’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment.
I haven’t received any documents yet. But at a recent press conference, Sen. de León said he would release information I and other reporters had requested. “Laurel, I read your letter,” he said, looking at me. “And that’s when I made the decision. We’re going to do something. We’re going to break away with the tradition in this institution.”
Watch his response below. De León uses the phrase “LORA,” which is shorthand for the Legislative Open Records Act—the law that has long allowed the Legislature to keep its investigations secret.
De León said he would provide the information within the next month. I’m still waiting for a response from Speaker Rendon.
A Republican from the Central Valley is the latest California lawmaker found to have violated the Capitol’s sexual harassment policy. An investigation found that Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia made frequent sexual comments, but determined there is not enough evidence to prove more serious allegations of sexual assault.
A redacted letter released by the Assembly Rules Committee says its investigation substantiated the claim that Mathis “frequently engaged in sexual ‘locker room talk,’ including making sexual comments about fellow Assemblymembers.” Mathis released an un-redacted version of the letter, which says the investigation found another allegation was not substantiated. The letter does not describe the unsubstantiated allegation but his chief of staff, Justin Turner, said it was the same claim published in a blog post last year accusing Mathis of sexual assault.
“The locker-room conversation referenced in the letter, that took place almost four years ago, was wrong and something for which I have previously apologized and do so again,” Mathis said in a statement.
The letter says the Assembly took “appropriate remedial actions” against Mathis, which the Speaker’s Office described as sensitivity training and counseling on the Assembly’s harassment policy.
Mathis’ case is the latest harassment investigation to be made public by the California Legislature in the wake of the global #MeToo movement that began last year and exposed many cases of misconduct inside the state Capitol. It prompted lawmakers to create a new protocol for handling sexual harassment investigations—though it won’t go into effect until next year.
Pressure from the media and victims’ advocates also prompted legislative leaders to make public some records that document substantiated harassment cases—records that had long been shielded from public view. The spreadsheet below lists all cases the Legislature has made public. I created it when the Legislature began releasing records in February and am updating it as each new case is released. You can scroll to the right for links to source documents.
On a leave of absence from the Legislature since she was accused of sexual harassment in February—and facing intensifying attacks in her re-election campaign—Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia jumped back into the fray today, sending out a press release saying she’d been “exonerated.”
Though an investigation did not substantiate the most serious allegations against her, it found that Garcia, a Bell Gardens Democrat, violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy by “commonly and pervasively” using vulgar language in talking to her staff. It also found that she had employees perform personal tasks and disparaged elected officials. (Garcia admitted recently that she had called former Speaker John Perez, who is openly gay, a “homo.”)
Speaker Anthony Rendon quickly moved to diminish Garcia’s clout, removing her from all committee memberships. Rendon also is requiring Garcia to attend “sensitivity training” and sessions to learn more about the Assembly’s policy on harassment and violence prevention.
“Our members have the responsibility to treat constituents, staff, colleagues and the entire Capitol community with respect and dignity. Disappointingly, that has not always been the case with Assemblymember Garcia,” Rendon said in a statement.
Garcia’s press release included an apology “for instances where my use of language was less than professional.”
“I want to assure everyone that I have learned from this experience and will do everything in my power to make amends for my past. Nothing is more important to me than protecting the health and safety of the people I represent. I know that I can only effectively serve my constituents if staff and my colleagues feel comfortable and respected on the job. That is the climate I pledge to build and sustain,” Garcia’s statement said.
The investigation did not substantiate complaints that Garcia drank heavily on the job, played spin-the-bottle with employees and squeezed a staff member by the butt. But it’s unclear how thorough the investigation was. It was completed without interviewing four former employees who accused Garcia of misconduct, according to a letter from the Assembly’s chief administrative officer to Dan Gilleon, the accusers’ lawyer. The letter says Gilleon advised his clients not to participate, an assertion he challenged.
“My clients were, and are, willing to cooperate as long as the Assembly is willing to take the most basic and simple steps to ensure the investigation is fair and no retaliation is permitted,” Gilleon wrote in an email to the Assembly that he shared with CALmatters.
The Sacramento Bee reported that Daniel Fierro, who accused Garcia of groping him at a softball game, gave the Assembly names of witnesses who were never interviewed. He told the Bee that he is planning to appeal the Assembly’s findings.
All of which means this story probably isn’t over yet.
The state Senate has released results of an investigation finding that Adam Keigwin, the former chief of staff to Sen. Leland Yee, likely engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a female employee when they both worked for the Senate, including unwanted touching and exposing himself. Keigwin, now a lobbyist, said in a statement that the allegations are “absolutely untrue.” Read further coverage in the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.
This is the latest in a series of harassment investigations that have been made public by the Legislature in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has exposed sexual misconduct in many workplaces. I’m keeping track of the cases coming out of the California Capitol with this spreadsheet, which we created when the Legislature released a first batch of records on Feb. 2. You can scroll to the far-right column to seek a link to the source documents for each case.