SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The sexual harassment scandal in California’s Capitol brought rare bipartisan unity Tuesday as a legislative panel decried the system for examining misconduct as riddled with flaws and designed to shield lawmakers who behave badly.
Five women offered emotional testimony around harassment they’ve experienced or witnessed, including claims against lawmakers, and explained that women are afraid to risk their careers by coming forward. That came after the legislative panel spent two hours probing Assembly human resources employees on the system in place for handling misconduct.
“The term ‘zero tolerance’ creates an expectation that clearly at this point is not being met or even trusted,” Democratic Assemblyman Tim Grayson said.
Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong pressed: “Does anyone here believe that the current policy is working?”
The public hearing came a day after Democratic Assemblyman Raul Bocangera resigned amid allegations of kissing or groping multiple women without their consent. Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza faces accusations of misconduct as well.
Speaker Anthony Rendon appointed the six-member Assembly subcommittee in June for a once-a-decade update to the chamber’s harassment policies. The importance of its mission elevated when claims of rampant harassment by lawmakers, legislative staff members and lobbyists — many of whom remain unnamed — burst into the spotlight in October amid a national conversation on sexual misconduct.
“We are severely traumatized because we are aware of how powerless we are,” said lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who has accused a lawmaker of sexual misconduct but hasn’t publicly given his name.
Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, the committee chair, said the Assembly should no longer police itself when it comes to harassment.
It’s still unclear how many other lawmakers have faced harassment complaints or investigations. The Legislature shields those records from disclosure, and human resources employees did not offer clear answers Tuesday on how many lawmakers have been the targets of such probes.
Assembly Chief Administrative Officer Debra Gravert, who handles complaints, first said the Assembly does not track complaints that come in against lawmakers, only investigations. She wouldn’t say if any of the eight sexual harassment investigations in the past six years involved lawmakers.
In a tense moment, Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes demanded more transparency. Her voice rising, she asked Gravert to be “as transparent and honest as possible” about whether she received any complaints against lawmakers in the past six months.
“Yes,” Gravert responded. She later added more complaints against lawmakers have been filed in recent weeks.
Republican Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, meanwhile, said it’s time for the Legislature to stop using taxpayer dollars on settlements involving lawmakers and shielding lawmakers’ wrongdoing from the public eye.
“At what point do we say we don’t need to keep these people protected?” she asked.
The panel also pressed for more clarity on who decides whether a complaint warrants and investigation and when outside firms are hired to conduct them.
The women who testified, meanwhile, said far more than eight instances of harassment have occurred, but women are not coming forward over fears of professional and personal retaliation. Using some of the most inflammatory language, Christine Pelosi, who chairs the California Democratic Party’s women’s caucus, accused the Legislature of covering up sex crimes.
“What everybody here knows is that we have rapists in this building, we have molesters among us, there are perpetrators, enforcers and enablers in this building,” she said. Pelosi did not offer specific allegations of rape.
Later in the hearing, committee chair Assemblywoman Laura Friedman said anyone who knows of such criminal behavior should report it to law enforcement.
“If I had heard that there was a rape in this building, believe me, I would go to the police,” she said.
Two women who testified have alleged harassment by lawmakers. One of them, Jennifer Kwart, said she was a 19-year-old intern in Mendoza’s office when he was an Assemblyman when he took her to an event in San Jose and offered her alcohol in a hotel suite. Mendoza has denied the allegations.
Both Lopez and Kwart said women, especially young ones, feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to harassment. They suggested the Legislature can do more to inform employees and lobbyists about the channels for reporting it.
“If I had attempted to report it at the time, I would have had no idea who to tell,” she said. “I just felt very alone.”