CALmatters' Capitol columnist Laurel Rosenhall

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.

Open Reporting: Capitol

April 9, 2018 9:55 am

Track the Legislature’s sexual harassment records with our spreadsheet

#metoo sexual harassment
Photo via Pixabay

The latest sexual harassment investigation released by the Legislature shows a former chief of staff “more likely than not” made sexually suggestive comments to staff members and leered at employees in a way that made them uncomfortable. Rodney Wilson, who was the top aide to Assemblyman Tom Daly until he resigned in January, said in an email to CALmatters on Friday that he disagreed with the report’s conclusion, but he apologized “to those who may have been offended by their perception of the way I looked at them or what they believe they might have heard.”

In releasing the records, legislative administrators wrote a letter saying they are not required by law to make them public. However, facing intense pressure from the media amid a national reckoning over sexual harassment, legislative leaders agreed to release a subset of records—those detailing sexual harassment complaints against elected lawmakers and high-level staff that were substantiated by an investigation or for which a settlement was paid.

At this point the Legislature has released all records from the past that are likely to be made public. However, numerous investigations are currently under way; I and other reporters have asked the Legislature to release them as they are completed.

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To keep track of the cases and make the source documents available to the public, I’ll continue updating this spreadsheet, which we created when the Legislature released a first batch of records on Feb. 2.

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Open Reporting: Capitol

April 5, 2018 4:25 pm

Legislature releases details on 5 older harassment cases

The Legislature has released another swath of harassment records—this time detailing five cases it substantiated or in which a settlement was reached—involving elected members and high-level employees between 1992 and 2005.

Only one case involved an elected official, and he is not named in the records released by the Legislature. News accounts have described allegations against then-Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat, that resulted in a $117,200 settlement payment of taxpayer funds to Karri Velasquez in 1998, and those details match the date, amount and victim name in the documents released today.

The records also describe four cases of harassment by high-level legislative staff, only one of whom, Ronald Jackson, was terminated. The other three—David Commons, Bob Biddle and Josephine Figueroa—were given warnings, allowed to resign, or granted an unpaid leave of absence.

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Read the Assembly records here.

Read the Senate records here.

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Open Reporting: Capitol

March 14, 2018 3:06 pm

Capitol reporters ask Legislature to release harassment records routinely

Reporters covering lawmakers in the California Capitol on January 25, 2018. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters.
Reporters covering lawmakers in the California Capitol in January. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters.

Last month, legislative leaders broke from their custom of keeping records about sexual harassment in the Capitol secret when they released a decade of documents about misconduct by lawmakers and high-level staff. But in the weeks since, reporters who cover the state Capitol have faced a mishmash of responses when we’ve sought additional harassment records from the Legislature—including long delays for some reporters.

The Legislature’s inconsistency makes it harder for journalists to give Californians timely information about your government.

So the Capitol Correspondents Association of California—which represents reporters who cover the statehouse—today sent a letter to the Legislature’s leaders asking for an improved and consistent system for releasing information about substantiated cases of sexual harassment. The association is asking the Legislature to proactively release records on such cases on a public web site, so that not only reporters will have access to it but voters will as well. Read the letter here:

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Open Reporting: Capitol

Feb. 9, 2018 11:43 am

A twist in the harassment saga, and some problems revealed by the records dump

A huge twist emerged this week in the Capitol’s months-long reckoning over sexual harassment: A female lawmaker who helped spark the movement to end misconduct is taking a leave of absence while she herself is being investigated for sexual harassment.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia

An explosive report in Politico quoted a former legislative aide who accused Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of groping him during a softball game in 2014. It also included an anecdote from an unnamed lobbyist who described an inebriated Garcia making a sexual pass at him. Then came a follow-up story by Capital Public Radio reporting that Daniel Fierro, the former staffer who accused Garcia of groping, has ties to two male legislators Garcia has publicly lambasted for their alleged treatment of women.

Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, is the chair of the Legislature’s women’s caucus and has participated in the #MeToo movement by speaking out against a culture of sexual harassment in the male-dominated state Capitol. She denies the allegations against her but said she’s taking a voluntary unpaid leave “so as not to serve as a distraction or in any way influence the process of this investigation.”

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Things are getting messy. And all that happened after I wrote this story about lawmakers struggling to figure out how to respond to the harassment allegations that are now sweeping the Capitol.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reviewing the documents the Legislature released last week about substantiated cases of sexual harassment from 2006 to 2017 by lawmakers and high-level staff. A few questions the records raised:

Disparate discipline (and record-keeping):

There is a confusing disparity in how employees were disciplined for sexual harassment. The records indicate that in 2009, one Assembly staffer was fired for talking about sex, while another lost three days of pay for groping a fellow employee—behavior the victim later described as aggressively reaching inside her blouse.

(The staffer the records indicate groped, Raul Bocanegra, went on to become an Assemblyman. He resigned last year after the incident, and other harassment allegations, became public.)

“There needs to be some transparency about what the degrees of harassment are and what the potential punishments are, recognizing that cases are different,” said Julie Snyder, a Sacramento lobbyist who was struck by the disparity when she reviewed the records.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that the portions of the records that were publicly released don’t tell the full story of why certain people were fired. (Many of the pages were heavily redacted.)

“In some cases there were other things they did that factored into the broader reason for why they were terminated,” said Kevin Liao. “To just say the discipline varied because of sexual harassment is an incomplete telling of the picture.”

The logged complaints themselves lack uniformity. Though most were typed up on letterhead or disciplinary forms, one was written by hand on notebook paper. The notes were so difficult to make sense of that the Senate released them with a summary typed up the day the records went public.

“The integrity and timeliness of HR records is critical, and the fact that some records were written today and others were handwritten proves the point that the Legislature’s HR practices are problematic,” said a statement from Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the subject of the handwritten complaint that said he made an employee uncomfortable by pulling her close to him and dancing.

Who investigates complaints?

A consistent demand from victims and their advocates has been that investigations should be conducted by a neutral party—not by the Legislature’s administrators, who answer to politicians. The Senate responded late last year by hiring an outside law firm to investigate complaints.

But that makes the Senate the law firm’s client, so any information the investigation yields will be turned over to the Senate’s political leaders. It will be up to them whether to release the information.

This has frustrated Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who is cooperating with the law firm’s investigation. Former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Fresno Republican, has accused him of repeatedly hugging her in an aggressive and unprofessional way. Hertzberg—who long-ago earned the nickname Hugsberg—has publicly apologized, and told the Sacramento Bee that his intentions “have only been to foster a warm, human connection.”

Halderman said she was disappointed to learn that the Senate lawyers’ investigation of her complaint will not automatically be shared with her.

“No access will be given to me, whether it’s the part of the report that involves me or the report at large,” Halderman said. “If (Senate leaders) choose for whatever reason to push this aside, I’ve done all this for nothing.”

That concern leads to another unresolved issue:

How much will the public learn about confirmed perpetrators?

Back in 1975 the Legislature passed the ironically named Legislative Open Records Act , a law that says it doesn’t have to release any records about its investigations. And when reporters asked this fall for documents about harassment investigations, the Legislature refused to provide them. But after mounting pressure from the press, legislative leaders eventually changed course and released a limited set of records.

The Legislature’s administrators made clear, however, that in releasing the documents, they were not giving up their legal right to keep such information secret in the future.

“Please note we are not generally waiving applicable privileges and statutory exemptions with regard to Legislative Open Records Act requests,” top administrators wrote in letters attached to the documents.

Some of the records being provided don’t have to be disclosed under the law, their letters went on, “but are being provided nonetheless to facilitate open discourse concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Two key lawmakers—Sen. Toni Atkins, the incoming Senate leader, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat who is leading a panel charged with crafting a new sexual harassment policy—both told me they want the Legislature to continue releasing investigations that name the people whose harassing behavior has been confirmed.

“We need objective criteria that everyone understands, and that would include perhaps the process of releasing these things to the press,” Friedman said, adding that it’s an issue her committee will tackle.

This post was updated at 4:01 p.m. to include a comment from Kevin Liao, spokesman for the Assembly Speaker’s Office.

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