The California Senate announced Sunday it will hire an outside legal team to investigate all complaints of sexual misconduct and recommend discipline following new allegations against Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza.
The Senate has long handled harassment complaints internally by human resources employees that report to a committee of five lawmakers and has not made details of complaints or discipline public. Women who work in and around the Capitol have argued that process stops them from coming forward over fears of political and professional retaliation. The outside legal team will make public any complaints and discipline at the discretion of victims and whistleblowers, the Senate Rules Committee members said in a joint statement. The Rules Committee and the Senate Democratic Women's Caucus will work "expeditiously" to hire an outside legal team, the statement said.
"This process will be designed to protect the privacy of victims and whistleblowers, transparency for the public, and adequate due process for all parties involved," the statement said.
The Legislature has faced steady criticism over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations since nearly 150 women signed a letter in mid-October outlining a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and a system that does little to stop perpetrators.
The allegations that emerged last week against Mendoza, the first sitting senator named in connection with harassment, prompted the change in investigative procedures. The Los Angeles-area Democrat is accused of sexually harassing at least two young women who previously worked for him. The allegations are that Mendoza repeatedly invited a young female employee back to his house this year and that in 2008, when he was in the Assembly, Mendoza offered a 19-year-old intern alcohol at a hotel during an event in San Jose. Mendoza has denied behaving inappropriately.
The Senate said it began investigating Mendoza's recent behavior in September. The allegations against him will now be investigated by the outside lawyers when they are hired, the Rules Committee said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said the Senate leader moved out of a house he shared with Mendoza in Sacramento this weekend.
Many lawmakers have rooms or houses in Sacramento they stay in during session, and de Leon had been renting a room in Mendoza's home, his spokesman said.
De Leon, who heads the Rules Committee, said through his spokesmen that he didn't know about the allegations that Mendoza had invited a young woman to the home and was unaware of the investigation into it.
De Leon recently launched a bid for U.S. Senate against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat and one of California's most prominent women in politics.
The Assembly, meanwhile, has not announced any changes in its processes for handling harassment allegations. It plans to hold a public hearing on Nov. 28 for people to offer suggestions for improving its processes.
The group of women who launched the open letter about harassment at the Capitol applauded the Senate's change.
"We are pleased to see that Senate leadership is taking seriously the many accounts of harassment, abuse and discrimination that have been brought forward in the past few weeks," the group said in a statement.