California Senate approves staff whistleblower protections

File: The state Senate chamber at the California State Capitol.
File: The state Senate chamber at the California State Capitol.
Photo by BenFranske via Wikimedia Commons

California legislative staff members moved one step closer to winning whistleblower protections if they report sexual misconduct or other misbehavior under legislation passed Thursday by the Senate, which has stonewalled the measure for four years.

"Women have been waiting for decades, women who work in the Capitol, for this type of protection," said Assemblyman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore, the bill's sponsor. "Today was a good day for women — and men — in the Capitol."

The bill is expected to quickly pass Monday in the Assembly, where it's sailed through in the past, before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. If he signs it, it will take effect immediately.

California state employees have whistleblower protections, but that shield does not apply to legislative staff, who are non-unionized, at-will employees. The secretive Senate appropriations cited that at-will status as a reason for killing the bill four years in a row, but provided few other details.

But the measure took on fresh life last fall after nearly 150 women spoke out about a culture of pervasive sexual harassment at the Capitol that goes underreported because people feel personal and professional retaliation. Two Assembly lawmakers resigned and Sen. Tony Mendoza, a Democrat from Artesia, is on a leave of absence while outside lawyers conduct an investigation into his alleged improper behavior.

Melendez's bill says employees can't face retaliation or get fired for reporting ethical violations, including sexual misconduct and other misbehavior. In previous versions it referenced unethical behavior without specifically highlighting sexual harassment, although Melendez said sexual misconduct clearly always feel under the bill's scope.

"There has been a clear lack of transparency, accountability and trust in how the Legislature handles issues of sexual harassment," Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said. "We have to learn from the experiences of the staff that have been through it. How can we do that if those same people fear retaliation if they come forward?"

Public records show the Senate has investigated 15 sexual harassment complaints since 2006 and the Assembly 16 during that time. Legislative leaders are preparing to release more documents naming lawmakers and senior staff members who were the targets of investigations that resulted in discipline, information they first declined to make public for months.

Those records won't reflect behavior that's never been reported, which Melendez and others said could be widespread.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, said the bill is simply codifying protections that already exist for legislative staff members. The Senate's sexual harassment policies bar retaliation against people who report bad behavior.

Melendez said that hasn't been enough.

"Talk to the women who have come forward since this whole thing broke free and ask them if they feel the same way, that the protections have always been there," she said. "I think they would say no."