Assembly Hearing Describes Climate of Sexual Harassment at State Capitol

1 min
The California state Capitol in Sacramento. (Getty Images)

Confusing. Out of date. Lacking teeth. Those were a few of the criticisms voiced during a state Capitol hearing Tuesday on the state Assembly's policies on sexual harassment and what steps might be needed to strengthen them.

The afternoon-long hearing came amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations against both lawmakers and legislative staffers -- charges that have led to the resignation of one assemblyman and to a state senator being stripped of his leadership positions in the Legislature's upper house.

The first victim of sexual misconduct to testify Tuesday before the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response was Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who said she and other women she has talked to felt a complete sense of powerlessness as a result of their experiences. Lopez described the feeling as "absolutely crushing."

"I had anxiety and panic attacks for years from harassment as a young woman," Lopez said. "We are severely traumatized because we’re aware of how powerless we are." She stressed that powerful people who abuse their power "prey on powerlessness."

Six weeks ago, Lopez described being shoved into a bathroom at an event outside the Capitol and turning around to see a legislator who had unzipped his pants and was masturbating. Lopez has not yet named the alleged offender, but says she will soon.

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Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, told the panel that legislators have too long protected members’ bad behavior.

“We have rapists in the house, we have molesters in the house,” said Pelosi, whose mother, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, is the minority leader in the House of Representatives.

Pelosi harshly criticized the Assembly for still not having a hotline for victims to call. Instead she declared, “I’m the hotline,” saying she’s been fielding calls and dispensing advice to women who call her because they have nowhere else to turn.

“The house is on fire, we need help,” Pelosi said.

'A Burden for Victims'

Before testimony from women, Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, whose Rules Committee oversees sexual harassment policies first implemented in 1993, acknowledged the policy for responding to sexual harassment complaints needs updating.

"It’s very hard to read," Cooley said. "I would feel it’s impenetrable. You’re heaping a burden on the person who already feels they’ve been victimized."

Saying the policy complies with state law on sexual harassment, Cooley added, "That’s not to say it can’t be improved upon. The Assembly has a zero-tolerance policy, but that may confuse people," Cooley said. He expressed concern that some victims may believe a policy of "zero tolerance" could lead accusers to believe that if they file a complaint, the alleged offender could be fired.

"I hear -- I understand --  that people are afraid to report harassment," Cooley said, echoing the sentiment expressed by hundreds of women in Sacramento politics.

Under questioning from Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, Rules Committee administrator Debra Gravert said, "We don’t track any complaints. We do track investigations. But many complaints come in that may not violate policy."

Pressed on how many complaints led to investigations in the 3½ years she's been in her job, Gravert said she was not aware of any complaints against members of the Assembly.

When Reyes asked her later if a complaint against a member has been made in the last six months, Gravert said, "Yes, we have received complaints."

Complaints can be made in person or in writing, but Gravert acknowledged in-person complaints were never written down by staff.

'Not Enough Documentation' of Complaints

"It seems there wasn’t enough documentation," said Assemblywoman Reyes. "We have to follow due process but we have to be fair to the victims."

The hearing was chaired by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a first-term legislator from Los Angeles. It comes one day after Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima, resigned from his position amid charges from numerous women. In a written statement on his Facebook page, Bocanegra said he expected to be given a presumption of innocence until an investigation was completed.

“But clearly, the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been temporarily lost in a hurricane of political opportunism among the self-righteous in my case — to the detriment of both the accuser and the accused,” he wrote.

In response to a question Tuesday morning on KQED Forum about whether or not she had been advised about sexual harassment as part of her informal orientation, Friedman said, "I was warned by a few women not to socialize, not to go out in the evening with certain men. I didn’t think whether it was sexual harassment or just people who acted badly after hours. In hindsight, they very well could have been warning me about sex harassment and this kind of predatory behavior."

Friedman said she has talked with numerous legislators who have had this kind of harassment on the job.

"Freshmen and people lower on the totem pole are open to exploitation by senior members of the Legislature," she said.  "We have got to make this stop."

After watching the hearing, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said she felt there “was a kangaroo court aspect to it,” adding that “there didn’t seem to be a sense that everyone was reading from the same script,” leading to a lack of clarity about the process for investigating complaints.

“I didn’t leave with a lot of optimism,” Levinson said. “I didn’t hear that here’s the clear path forward, this is the fix.”

Also Tuesday, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said the Legislature should consider ways to make lawmakers financially responsible for sexual harassment settlements.

"Why should taxpayers be on the hook for sexual harassment payouts, while wrongdoers walk away with no financial accountability?," McCarty said in a statement.  "The state Assembly and the Joint Rules Committee should consider ways to recover financial damages from proven violators directly.”

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