California state Sen. Tony Mendoza fired three employees after they reported his alleged inappropriate behavior toward a young female colleague, according to an attorney representing one of the staffers.
"This smacks of retaliation," attorney Micha Star Liberty said Thursday.
The Mendoza allegations are the latest to roil the Legislature following the release of a letter signed by more than 100 women last month. The women, who have worked in and around the Capitol, described a culture of harassment, and many called the process to report misconduct deeply flawed.
Liberty said Mendoza, a Los Angeles County Democrat, repeatedly offered verbal and text invites to the young woman, a California Senate fellow, to visit him at home. Liberty also said that, on one occasion, the lawmaker invited the fellow to his hotel room at Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County.
She said two of the former Mendoza staffers reported their boss' actions in early September to the Rules Committee, which also serves as the Senate's human resources department. A third staffer did so later that month.
On September 22 – one week after the Legislature adjourned for the year – she said Rules Committee staff and Senate sergeants-at-arms met with the three employees in Mendoza's office.
During that meeting, the three employees offered significant details to back their claims, according to Liberty. "We want you to understand that this is an official report of sexual harassment," they said.
In response, the lawyer said, they were handed termination letters.
A copy of one of the September 22 letters, obtained by Capital Public Radio, indicates that the three staffers were placed on paid administrative leave "effective immediately" and with an "operative date" of termination for September 30.
Liberty said the employees came forward and reported a complaint as they were trained and encouraged to do by Senate Rules. "And when that happened – maybe because the senator has powerful friends, maybe because it's a rigged process to begin with that people have to report to Rules Committee, which has sitting members and elected officials serving on it – what happened after those reports were made was that they were fired," she said.
Mendoza released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that he would never knowingly abuse his authority or intentionally put an employee in an awkward or uncomfortable position.
"If I ever communicated or miscommunicated anything that made an employee feel uncomfortable, I apologize," the lawmaker's statement read.
He also said that any suggestion the employees were terminated because they reported misconduct is "an outrageous falsehood and runs completely counter to the facts."
Mendoza (D-Artesia) was elected to the Senate in 2014. He previously served in the Assembly from 2006-12.
On Thursday, Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León's office provided a statement from Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, who oversees human resources. "Senate Rules takes any allegation of inappropriate workplace behavior extremely seriously – and this is no different," the statement read. "These allegations are being rigorously reviewed and investigated consistent with our legal process, employment standards and privacy protections – and has been for months."
Alvarez also said there was no connection between the employees' terminations and the "subsequent complaint."
But a timeline of the staffers' complaints provided by Liberty runs counter to the Senate secretary's claim.
The lawyer said two of the three employees first reported Mendoza's behavior toward the Senate fellow to the Rules Committee in early September, about two weeks before the September 22 meeting when the staffers received their termination letters. The third employee followed up a few days before September 22. These reports were verbal rather than written, according to Liberty.
Capital Public Radio reached out to the three staffers earlier this week. One did not respond to requests. Another referred questions to Senate Rules. A third did not respond to a message on social media.
Attempts to reach two of the staffers via their Senate-issued emails resulted in bounce-back messages. Liberty said the accounts were deleted by the Rules Committee at the request of Mendoza.
Alvarez did not return a follow-up email seeking to discuss whether the email accounts were deleted.
The three staffers signed non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, according to Liberty. But The Sacramento Bee reported Mendoza as saying he replaced his staff based "entirely on work performance."
Liberty says the lawmaker's criticism violates the non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement the staffers signed in exchange for severance payments.
"To have the senator say in published newspaper articles that they were fired for performance reasons adds insult to injury." she said.
Mendoza continued to criticize his former employees in his statement to Capital Public Radio.
"I had no idea there was an issue, an allegation or a potential complaint at the time of the employee termination," Mendoza wrote. "No one had said a word to me about any of this. The employee terminations had been a long time coming and had nothing to do with these allegations, since there were no allegations."
Mendoza is the second lawmaker to be named following the release of the "We Said Enough" letter. The first was another Los Angeles County lawmaker, Asm. Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), who as was accused of groping a legislative staffer eight years ago when Bocanegra was a staffer himself.
Editor's Note: The Senate Fellows program is run by Sacramento State, which also holds the license to Capital Public Radio.
This story has been updated.