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.
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.
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.