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.
State Sen. John Moorlach put a woman in a headlock and gave her a “noogie” while they were posing for a photo at a reception—something he said he does frequently in good fun, according to investigative records released Friday by the state Senate.
“While your behavior… does not appear to be sexual in nature, it is still considered ‘unwanted behavior’ and as such is inappropriate and a violation of our policy,” Senate leaders wrote in a letter to Moorlach, a Republican from Costa Mesa.
The letter says Moorlach had previously been counseled for inappropriate touching because he poked an employee in the stomach. It instructs him to “stop giving ‘noogies’ or touching anyone in ‘fun,’ regardless of whether you believe the ‘noogies’ or touching are wanted or welcomed by the recipient.”
Moorlach responded with a statement saying he was “guilty of occasional playfulness” and vowing to stop “this innocent and gregarious behavior.”
Moorlach becomes the latest entry on our running tally of misconduct reports the Legislature has released in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Scroll to the right for a link to the redacted documents released by the Senate.
The most explosive allegation to come out of the #MeToo movement in the California Capitol—a lobbyist’s claim that then-Assemblyman Matt Dababneh pushed her into a bathroom and made her watch him masturbate—has been substantiated by an Assembly investigation. And legislative officials went even further by denying Dababneh’s request for an appeal of the findings, according to records released Monday.
Dababneh, a San Fernando Valley Democrat who resigned in December, has denied the allegation and sued lobbyist Pamela Lopez for defamation after she publicly accused him of trapping her in a bathroom, masturbating and asking her to touch him while they were both at a Las Vegas hotel in 2016 for a mutual friend’s wedding. The Assembly investigation was triggered by a formal complaint Lopez lodged after hundreds of women signed a letter last fall decrying a culture of sexual harassment in the California Capitol.
Since then, the Legislature has approved a new policy for preventing and responding to harassment, and leaders agreed to make public certain records when investigations determine that elected officials and high-level staff members engaged in misconduct.
“So far it seems like the process is working,” said Lopez on Monday. “I was sexually harassed by Dababneh, the legislature conducted an investigation and substantiated that claim, then denied his appeal.”
We are keeping track of the harassment records the Legislature is releasing with this spreadsheet; scroll to the right to see the documents.
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.