In an effort to ensure enforcement of zero tolerance policies when it comes to sexual harassment in California state senate offices, lawmakers have announced steps will be taken to hire outside attorneys for any investigations that involve abuse of or by staff or legislators. As reported by The Los Angeles Times, this breaks a long-standing practice of internally investigating sexual harassment complaints.
It’s also reflective of the national tone with regard to sexual harassment incidents, after the fallout with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo movement across social media and in numerous rallies and marches. Recently, hundreds marched in Hollywood against sexual harassment, as people from all different professions have come forward to demand accountability for those who commit sexual harassment and the institutions that protect them.
The decision to revise the sexual harassment investigation policies within the California Senate was unveiled hours after there were allegations of inappropriate behavior against Tony Mendoza, a Democrat from Artesia. Two capital staffers have accused him of misconduct. One allegation was made by a 19-year-old intern, who alleged Mendoza invited her to his hotel room to drink alcohol, despite her being underage. Another allegation was made by a 19-year-old Senate fellow. Three former aides were reportedly fired after making complaints about the interactions with the young woman. Senate officials have denied there is any connection between those terminations and the sexual harassment complaints.
The Times reported the new investigative policies would include those allegations made against Mendoza. Previously, the Senate Rules Committee was responsible for dealing with all issues related to human resources – including sexual harassment. There is a similar policy in place at the California State Assembly. These committees are both overseen by high-ranking members of those legislative bodies. In effect, lawmakers are the final judge of whether behavior was improper and whether discipline is warranted. Committee members are placed in the position of having to potentially take action against their powerful colleagues.
This point is further underscored when one considers that Mendoza was – until very recently – the roommate of Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). De Leon has said Mendoza has since moved out of their shared dwelling.
Senate leaders say they have yet to choose a law firm to investigate the allegations, but did indicate the general outcome of those investigations would be made public.
Recently, both the Senate and the Assembly denied press requests to obtain information regarding abuse and sexual harassment allegations made in the last 10 years. The Legislature refused to clarify how many complaints were made, and instead only indicated the number that proceeded to the formal investigative process.
Some have questioned whether this new process will even be transparent and sufficient enough to ensure complaints are fully and fairly investigated. Specifically, questions were raised about whether the Legislature should be impartial in deciding who would be hired to investigate future claims of sexual harassment.
California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act expressly prohibits sexual harassment in the workforce – and lawmakers don’t get a free pass. As noted by the DFEH, sexual harassment may involve offers of employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors, unwanted physical contact, derogatory or sexually degrading verbal conduct, visual conduct (i.e., leering, displaying sexually subjective objects or photos) or threatening retaliatory action after receiving a negative response to one’s sexual advances.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
All sexual harassment investigations in California state Senate to be sent to outside attorneys, Nov. 14, 2017, By John Myers, The Los Angeles Times
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