Politics

California state senators call on LA-area colleague to resign amid misconduct probe

State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, listens at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Mendoza has agreed pay more than $60,000 in fines to settle allegations by the Fair Political Practices Commission, that he wrongly transferred money out of a campaign committee to other Democratic state candidates and failed to disclose the transfer, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.
State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, listens at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Mendoza has agreed pay more than $60,000 in fines to settle allegations by the Fair Political Practices Commission, that he wrongly transferred money out of a campaign committee to other Democratic state candidates and failed to disclose the transfer, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Senate leader Kevin de Leon ramped up pressure Thursday on Sen. Tony Mendoza — his former roommate and a fellow Democrat — to take a leave of absence until an investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct ends.

Mendoza hasn't agreed.

"It's an ongoing conservation," de Leon told reporters.

De Leon, in the midst of a campaign against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, made his comments during a press conference where he announced the state Senate's hiring of two law firms to handle all sexual harassment complaints made against senators and their staff for the next two years. He also promised the Senate will release within 30 days more details of which lawmakers have faced sexual harassment complaints and investigations.

The Senate's moves come almost two months after nearly 150 women who work in and around the Capitol released an open letter decrying a culture of pervasive sexual harassment. Two Assembly Democrats — Matt Dababneh and Raul Bocangera — have already resigned. Mendoza has maintained his seat despite allegations that he behaved inappropriately toward three young women who worked for him, including by inviting one to his Sacramento home, which he shared with de Leon. De Leon said he did not know and moved out after the accusations became public. Mendoza denies wrongdoing.

The outside investigation into those allegations will be completed early next year, and Mendoza should step aside in the meantime, de Leon said. The law firms will also look into allegations that Sen. Bob Hertzberg hugged female colleagues inappropriately, but de Leon said he does not think Hertzberg, known for hugging, should step aside.

Organizers of the mid-October letter, who now have a group called "We Said Enough," criticized de Leon's actions as "woefully inadequate" and said the Senate should be working hand-in-hand with the Assembly rather than going at it alone.

"The approach does not reflect any kind of independent investigation," said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and the group's co-founder. "An attorney hired by the Legislature is still subject to attorney-client privilege."

Asked by a reporter, de Leon did not say if he would waive or narrow that attorney-client privilege to ensure transparency about the firm's investigations.

Lawyers for the firms — Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Van Dermyden Maddux — said their mission is one of independent fact-finding, not protecting the Legislature. The two firms are setting up a hotline for people who have witnessed or been the subjects of harassment to report the behavior.

"Our job is to do a neutral investigation and the facts lead us where they lead us," said Deborah Maddux, the lead attorney for Van Dermyden Maddux.

Benjamin Wagner, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, is leading the investigation for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Attorneys at the firm have given nearly $17,000 in campaign contributions to six Senate candidates, the Sacramento Bee reported. Wagner said neither he nor anyone on his team has donated to senators and that the firm will be impartial.

De Leon also announced a partnership with WEAVE, a Sacramento-based rape crisis center, to provide counseling to victims of harassment.

This story has been updated.