The California Senate’s flailing efforts to deal with an accused colleague illustrate the challenges lawmakers face in response to revelations of sexual harassment that have swept the state Capitol.
Under investigation for sexual harassment—including allegations that he invited a young staffer to come home with him—state Sen. Tony Mendoza agreed on Jan. 3 to take a month-long leave of absence from the California Legislature.
But a week later, the Democrat from Artesia showed up in the Capitol and lingered until the leader of the Senate told him to leave. Mendoza instead returned to his Los Angeles area district and resumed routine duties: He presented resolutions to community groups, spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event and escorted high school seniors on a district tour. His staff even sent out emails recruiting interns for the spring semester.
Mendoza’s behavior showed he had “no decency and little respect for the institution,” Senate leader Kevin de León told reporters last month. Even so, the Senate refused to use its constitutional authority to formally suspend him. Instead, the day before Mendoza’s voluntary leave was to end, senators rushed to create a new rule allowing them to extend it. After an hour of feverish debate, the Senate passed the rule so hastily that it wasn’t even in its final form.
If nothing else, the debacle illustrates that the Legislature is struggling to figure out how to respond to the revelations of sexual harassment that have swept the state Capitol.
Not that there has been no response. Just this week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a long-stalled bill granting whistleblower job protections to legislative staffers who report misconduct. Last week, the Legislature released records disclosing, for the first time, substantiated harassment complaints against 18 lawmakers and staffers over the last decade. It has set up a hotline for employees to report problems and seek counseling. And a bipartisan panel of lawmakers has launched hearings meant to ultimately overhaul how the Legislature tries to prevent harassment and handles complaints.
But the responses—some plodding, some flailing—are happening while the Legislature is in the midst of 14 investigations of alleged harassment by lawmakers and staff. Those investigations could be complete before May, when the bipartisan panel will likely be ready to make recommendations on a long-term policy.
“Our systems obviously are flawed,” said Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who will take over next month as Senate leader. “It’s up to us to fix this. But quick fixes? I’m more interested in substantive over quick.”
The 14 harassment cases the Legislature is now investigating include four that have publicly come to light: Sens. Mendoza and Bob Hertzberg, as well as former Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh. Bocanegra and Dababneh both denied wrongdoing but resigned shortly after they were publicly accused.
Mendoza and Hertzberg are still in office, but facing entirely different scenarios. Hertzberg remains in good standing as a senator while attorneys investigate complaints from female lawmakers that he inappropriately hugged them. Mendoza is on a leave of absence during an investigation of claims that he made advances on three young female employees, which included bringing a 19-year-old intern to a hotel room and giving her booze.
Mendoza has denied wrongdoing. Hertzberg has publicly apologized and said his longtime habit of hugging colleagues was meant to foster “a warm, human connection.”
De León said the allegations against Hertzberg didn’t necessitate a leave of absence because they came from workplace peers, not subordinates. But Mendoza called out the discrepancy in an angry letter to fellow senators, decrying what he called an “opaque and dark process.”
“Remember, what is happening to me could happen to you,” he wrote.
Senators waved copies of Mendoza’s letter as they debated his fate last month. Democrats had written the resolution allowing Senate leaders to extend a leave of absence. Several Republicans balked at creating the new rule, saying that imposing a leave of absence amounts to a suspension, which requires a full Senate vote.
The first time lawmakers invoked the power to suspend their peers was in 2014, when they voted to suspend three senators charged with felonies including perjury and accepting bribes. The senators continued to be paid while suspended because there was no provision in state law to take away their paychecks without permanently expelling them from office—an action their colleagues deemed premature before a criminal conviction.
So the Legislature put a measure on the 2016 ballot asking voters to let them suspend a lawmaker without pay. It passed overwhelmingly. The upshot: Lawmakers now have two options to suspend a colleague—one with pay, one without. And yet they created a third path for Mendoza, the non-voluntary paid leave.
“The end result is the same. His physical presence is not here, and that’s the thing that counts,” de León said.
Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who helped write the October letter that launched the movement against harassment in the Capitol, said the Mendoza situation highlights the lack of clarity on how the Legislature is supposed to respond to allegations of misconduct in its ranks.
“It speaks more largely to the fact that there isn’t a process,” she said. “We’ve put our legislative body in a really uncomfortable position where…the members of the Legislature are now very publicly being asked to play judge and jury.”