Getting legislative leaders to release records about sexual harassment by legislators and their staffers was like pulling teeth without anesthesia.
It took months of pressure from women who work in and around the Capitol and had demanded an end to the pervasive culture of bad behavior and from news media, but it finally happened last Friday.
As CALmatters.org political columnist Laurel Rosenhall described the document dump:
“Four current lawmakers, two former lawmakers and a dozen legislative employees are named in a trove of records the California Legislature released today showing substantiated cases of sexual harassment over the last decade.
“The records show that the Capitol’s human resources staff affirmed complaints against state Sens. Bob Hertzberg and Tony Mendoza, both Democrats from the Los Angeles area, as well as Assembly members Travis Allen, a Republican from Huntington Beach who is running for governor, and Autumn Burke, a Democrat from Marina Del Rey.
“Substantiated complaints against former Sen. Rod Wright and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, both Democrats from Los Angeles, were also included in the records. So, too, were settlement payouts that followed sexual harassment allegations against a third former lawmaker, Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox from Palmdale.”
It was not a complete capitulation. Records of current investigations remain sealed, and nothing was released about earlier cases stretching back several decades, some of which had been revealed, albeit reluctantly, publicly at the time.
Not surprisingly, the women whose public letter in October, demanding an end to harassment, were not satisfied, nor should they be.
Their group, We Said Enough, said the records release “falls dramatically short of a comprehensive or transparent release of information.”
“The selective release of data related only to certain individuals serves only to further erode the trust that so many victims and survivors hoped to rebuild,” the group said in a statement.
It is, however, a beginning to lifting the veil of secrecy that envelops the Capitol, thanks to its exemption from the many “sunshine laws” that the Legislature requires local governments to follow, from civil service laws that both state and local governments must follow, and the employment laws that it imposes on the private sector.
After putting it in a political deep freeze for years, legislative leaders have revived a bill by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Lake Elsinore Republican, to protect legislative employees from retaliation if they report misconduct, sexual and otherwise.
Releasing some records and resurrecting one bill that should have been enacted years ago are not enough.
The Legislature should repeal the very weak, four-decade-old law that provides very limited access to its records and place itself under the Open Records Act that other state agencies and local governments must obey, with limited exceptions for legal and personnel issues.
It should also repeal the Legislature’s exemption from civil service laws. There’s absolutely no reason why rank-and-file legislative employees should not have civil service status, limiting at-will employment to a few top staffers, just as occurs in the rest of state government.
Nor is there any reason why those legislative employees should not be able to unionize, as Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat, has proposed.
It’s hypocritical for the Legislature to exempt itself from the laws and procedures it imposes on others, as the firestorm over sexual harassment underscores. If would-be miscreants know that their behavior can be reported and revealed to the public, they’ll be much less likely to do it. It’s as simple as that.