Tony Mendoza to take leave amid misconduct probe

California state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, listens at the Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 26, 2016.
California state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, listens at the Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 26, 2016.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza is taking a voluntary month-long leave of absence amid an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct toward young women who worked for him.

Mendoza's announcement came after four hours of closed door meetings Wednesday by Senate Democrats. He had steadfastly refused calls to step aside for weeks and reiterated that defiant tone the morning before senators met.

In a brief statement, he didn't say what changed his mind. He'll be paid during the month.

Mendoza says he'll come back Feb. 1 or sooner if the investigation concludes. The Senate has hired outside law firms to look into the allegations against him, but Mendoza says he has no indication the investigation has begun. He says he looks forward to clearing his name.

He's accused of misconduct toward three young women who worked for him, including offering a young woman staff member alcohol when she was underage and inviting another to his home. One of his former staff members has filed a formal complaint with the state alleging she was fired for reporting the behavior.

Mendoza had struck a defiant tone, saying he shouldn't have to leave for "allegedly making someone feel uncomfortable."

Options on the table had included Mendoza taking a voluntarily leave of absence until the investigation concludes or moving to suspend or expel him.

Staff members were shut out of the discussions and senators didn't comment as they went in and out of the room. Mendoza, whose family sat in the gallery, said he'd cooperate with investigators in order to clear his name and warned his colleagues against acting rashly.

"The allegations against me, as far as I know, do not involve any form of touching or even suggest inappropriate bodily contact. Unlike others, I have been accused at most of allegedly making someone 'feel' uncomfortable," he said in a statement before the session convened. "I believe I am receiving unequal application of sanctions, without benefit of a thorough investigation or the due process that I am entitled to receive under both the California and US Constitutions."

The Senate has hired two law firms to handle all sexual harassment allegations for the next two years, including the claims against Mendoza, but he says he has not been contacted by them.

Republicans, meanwhile, were divided on whether to back a proposal by Sen. Andy Vidak to expel Mendoza, with some saying it could create a slippery slope by acting before the investigation concludes.

In the Assembly, Democratic Speaker Anthony Rendon urged his colleagues to be "active protectors" on issues of sexual harassment and misconduct. Two Democratic members from Los Angeles — Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh — already resigned amid allegations of improper conduct including groping women.

"We must provide that protection for those who work here and those whose work requires them to come here," Rendon said. "We can do better, we must do better."

Asked if any other sitting lawmakers are facing allegations, Rendon told reporters he does not comment on human resources issues.

In the Mendoza allegations, Adriana Ruelas, his former legislative director, filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing accusing Mendoza and the Senate of retaliation, the Bee reported.

She says she reported Mendoza's repeated inappropriate overtures to a young Senate fellow who worked in his office before being fired in September. Her complaint alleges Mendoza invited the young woman to his home and had her drive him to an overnight event and suggested he would stop by her hotel room in the evening, the newspaper reported.

Mendoza has pushed back aggressively against the allegations. On Tuesday, he urged a state audit of the Legislature's sexual harassment policies, which he said would ensure more transparency for victims, the accused and the public.

Vidak, the Republican senator, said it's time for the chamber to act.

"The Senate should stop being his enabler," he said. "He is not entitled to any so-called due process in this regard as serving in the Legislature is a privilege, not a right."

In 2016, the state Fair Political Practices Commission fined Mendoza and others $63,000 for violating campaign finance rules after helping a political ally in 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported.

This story has been updated.