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.
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.
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.”
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.
State Sen. Joel Anderson was at least a little tipsy and rubbing a lobbyist’s shoulders during a political fundraiser at a steakhouse near the Capitol last month when he leaned in close and told her he wanted to “bitch slap” her.
That’s the finding of the latest sexual harassment investigation released by the California Legislature on Tuesday as the fallout of the #MeToo movement continues to ripple through the state Capitol. The records include a letter reprimanding Anderson, a Republican from Alpine, and calling his behavior “completely unacceptable.” The letter from Senate leader Toni Atkins, a Democrat, instructs him to “interact in a professional manner going forward” and says he will face more severe discipline if he doesn’t.
Atkins’ Republican counterpart applauded the move, saying all senators need to adhere to standards of conduct.
“The behavior exhibited in this incident will no longer be tolerated. The decision to issue a reprimand in this case is warranted and appropriate,” Senate Republican leader Pat Bates said in a statement.
Anderson, who is termed out of the Senate this year and is running for a seat on the Board of Equalization, told investigators that he did not use the term “bitch slap” in a threatening way. Instead, he argues, he used the term to describe something he found shocking. He said it was a poor choice of words and he should have instead said “blow your mind.”
Investigators disagreed, saying the lobbyist and four witnesses they interviewed heard Anderson say it as a threat, something to the effect of “I ought to bitch slap you.”
“Although we do not reach a conclusion on the specific phrasing, we conclude the term was not used in the context described by Senator Anderson,” the investigation says.
The list below shows all the harassment cases that have been substantiated by the California Legislature since it began releasing such records in February. We are continually updating this spreadsheet; scroll to the right for a link to the source documents.
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.