Politics

Sexual misconduct scandal envelops California Legislature

A 2016 file photo of the California state Capitol in Sacramento.
A 2016 file photo of the California state Capitol in Sacramento.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Sexual misconduct in the California Legislature was bound to be a prominent issue when lawmakers got to Sacramento last month, but for seven weeks it has felt like the only one, with the burgeoning scandal taking one surprising twist after another and diverting attention from government spending, climate change and housing.

It again will be the focus when lawmakers return Tuesday and learn whether an investigation cleared state Sen. Tony Mendoza of misconduct allegations or set him up for possible expulsion. In another headline-grabbing development, the Los Angeles-area Democrat sued the Senate last week, claiming he was unfairly suspended and that racism might have been a factor.

That came a week after a female lawmaker, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, took leave following accusations of groping a male legislative staffer. A different former staffer filed a complaint Saturday with the California Fair Employment and Housing Department alleging Garcia encouraged staff to participate in a drinking game after a 2014 fundraiser and that he was fired for complaining about it.

While lawmakers seek to downplay the impact on day-to-day activities — Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose said it's simply piling more on an already hefty workload — all the attention on sexual misconduct is clearly taking time away from other issues for some members.

Leadership and staff spent weeks parsing through documents related to sexual harassment allegations, deciding what to release to the public, while a newly formed legislative panel is tackling the mammoth task of rewriting the Legislature's harassment policies.

Some lawmakers have become more cautious about with whom they partner on legislation, fearful the wrong choice could have them tethered to the next person caught in the scandal.

"It's hard to imagine a more hostile-feeling work environment than one in which everyone is suspicious of each other," said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. "Under these circumstances, (opposition) is heightened and personalized in a way that just has to make it difficult to work toward compromise and be collegial."

More accusations could become public and generate additional negative publicity: The Assembly is investigating at least 10 claims of sexual misconduct, and the Senate, at least six.

Meanwhile, four Assembly seats are vacant — two from the resignations of Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh amid harassment claims, a third from Sebastian Ridley-Thomas' retirement due to health problems and Garcia's. All are Democrats.

In the Senate, Mendoza's seat is open while the investigation plays out.

"It's a drip, drip, drip factor, you have enough drips and soon you have a flood," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Culturally, too, a noticeable shift is underway. Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, who chairs the committee rewriting the harassment policy, said in a hearing last week that people in the Capitol are increasingly nervous that routine behavior could be labeled misconduct.

"We're getting to a place here in the Capitol, quite honestly, where people are afraid. They're afraid of whether their behavior crosses a line," she said. "How do we start to understand what's considered acceptable and what's not? Because that seems to be a moving target right now."

Indeed, the spectrum of behaviors that has brought misconduct ranges from hugs and suggestive text messages to groping and, in one case involving Dababneh, forcing a female lobbyist into a bathroom and masturbating in front of her. He denies the claim.

The lawsuit and other recent developments have added to the spectacle-like nature of it all.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, who is running for U.S. Senate against longtime incumbent and fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has found himself tangled in the story. He used to share a Sacramento home with Mendoza, who is accused of inviting a young female employee to the house.

De Leon moved out of the house when the allegations against Mendoza broke last fall and has declined to comment on the lawsuit. Mendoza claims de Leon is distancing himself because he doesn't want to harm his chances against Feinstein.

Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said public perception of the Legislature has been harmed by the scandal and its fallout, "as it should." But there's good from it, too.

"It's also a wakeup call for some changes that should have happened and needed to happen for a long time," he said.

___

Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper contributed reporting.