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Capitol struggles to confront sexual harassment

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, left, chair of an Assembly committee targeting sexual harassment in the Capitol, confers with Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, at a Nov. 28 hearing. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Allegations by scores of women of rampant sexual assault and harassment in California’s Capitol over decades have ensnared three lawmakers and brought promises of reform from leadership. But some women who have spoken out say they are also facing consequences for telling their stories.

Two women who have accused Assemblyman Matt Dababneh of sexual harassment said this week they were already experiencing a backlash for coming forward.

Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez says Dababneh forced her into a bathroom and masturbated in front of her. Dababneh’s lawyers had sent her a letter denying her story and threatening legal action if she spoke out.

“I am already experiencing people who are cold shouldering me, ignoring me, snubbing me, won’t speak to me.” — Jessica Yas Barker.

Dababneh, D-Encino, represents the 45th Assembly District and has stepped down as chair of the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee.

The Assembly is hiring outside counsel to investigate the claims, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said. Dababneh should resign if investigators find he assaulted Lopez, said Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat.

“As scary as it is to step forward, I can’t have it on my conscience that I didn’t do everything that I could do to stop him from hurting other women,” Lopez said at a Monday news conference.

Another woman, Jessica Yas Barker, says Dababneh harassed her when he was her boss in a congressional district office. She said Dababneh, then a district director for U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, would make sexually explicit comments to her that influenced her decision to leave her job.

She said she’s facing consequences in her professional life for speaking out.

“I am already experiencing people who are cold shouldering me, ignoring me, snubbing me, won’t speak to me,” she said at the Monday news conference.

Three Democratic lawmakers — Dababneh, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra of Los Angeles and Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia — have all been accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks.

Women often face similar repercussions for reporting harassment, said Jean Hyams, a lawyer representing Lopez and Barker.

“This is the kind of tactic that frequently follows when men in positions of power with great amounts of resources learn that their behavior may be exposed,” Hyams said at the news conference. “Women are threatened with defamation lawsuits. The whisper network goes into high gear to start to shame them.”

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, says she’s experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol, including when a lobbyist groped her and another lawmaker told her to keep quiet about it.

She’s worried that because she’s spoken out she’ll have a harder time passing legislation when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.

“Individuals who are saying that I’m using this for my own political gain or they don’t believe me … I’ve been in the system long enough to know those are the same individuals I’m going to need a vote from later,” Garcia said.

Three Democratic lawmakers — Dababneh, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra of Los Angeles and Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia — have all been accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks.

California’s Capitol has become one of the highest profile institutions dealing with systemic harassment.

Bocanegra resigned last month after multiple women came forward alleging he groped or otherwise harassed them. He has denied committing sexual harassment crimes.

Mendoza lost his leadership positions, including his chairmanship of the Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee, amid allegations he behaved inappropriately toward women who worked in his office. He has denied the allegations.

California’s Capitol has become one of the highest profile institutions dealing with systemic harassment in the wake of the sexual assault scandal, reported first by the New York Times, that engulfed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and launched a global conversation about the issue.

In October, more than 140 female lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers and other women in the Capitol community signed a letter detailing a culture of harassment at the Legislature and formed a campaign called “We Said Enough.”

“Until the ‘We Said Enough’ campaign began within the Capitol community, I think most of us were unaware of how large this problem was,” Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, said at a hearing last week in Sacramento. “Sexual harassment is everywhere, but the time has come to address it.”

Hicks also said she received an email from an anonymous person who said they would not hire her because she had spoken out.

It’s impossible to know how much backlash women may be facing for speaking out because it’s difficult to track missed professional opportunities.

Jodi Hicks, a lobbyist in Sacramento who signed the letter, said her firm confronted a senator who told one of their clients he was considering a policy against drinks with women in light of the recent wave of allegations. Such a policy would be problematic, she said, in part because it would reduce access for women at the Capitol, where meetings over drinks are common. (Disclosure: Hicks is a member of the board of Open California, which publishes Capitol Weekly.)

She declined to name the senator because she felt he had adequately apologized once confronted about the policy and promised not to implement it.

Hicks also said she received an email from an anonymous person who said they would not hire her because she had spoken out.

“We need to develop a new ethical code that transcends what’s legal.” — Laura Friedman

Despite the backlash, Hicks said most responses she’s received have been positive.

“Everyone can admit there’s a problem, a culture change that needs to happen,” she said. Both chambers of the Legislature are mulling reforms to the harassment reporting process.

An Assembly hearing on the subject last week revealed widespread confusion among lawmakers and staff about how complaints should be filed and how they are processed.

“A lot of questions weren’t answered,” Garcia said of the hearing. “The process is so in the dark.”

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, who led the hearing and heads the group tasked with reforming the reporting process, said she doesn’t think the Legislature can adequately police misconduct by its own members.

“We need to really strip those processes down and really recreate the process from the beginning,” the Glendale Democrat told Capitol Weekly. “We need to develop a new ethical code that transcends what’s legal.”

Meanwhile, the Senate is seeking an outside law firm to handle sexual harassment and assault claims. The chamber plans to select a firm this month, said Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat.

In a November email to Senate staff, the Senate secretary provided a phone number and email to report confidential harassment claims in the meantime.

There should be a single process for reporting abuse in both houses, said Jennifer Kwart, an Assembly staffer who reported misconduct by Mendoza, a senator.

Kwart interned in his district office in 2008. She says Mendoza, who was then an assemblyman, took her to his hotel room at a state party convention, served her alcohol even though she was 19 and asked personal questions that made her uncomfortable.

She recently reported the incident to the Assembly, but said the complaint process is still “very murky” for her.

“It’s still unclear what the next step is,” she said at the Assembly hearing last week. “To this day, I have not had contact with anyone from the Senate or the Senate investigators … I don’t know if it is incumbent on me to initiate that contact or who to talk to in the other house.”

The current system makes people afraid to report harassment, Friedman said, adding that her subcommittee intends to fix that problem.

De Leon’s office says it directed Senate staff to reach out to Kwart following her testimony. Once the Senate has hired outside counsel, she will be interviewed as part of the investigation, according to de Leon’s office.

The current system makes people afraid to report harassment, Friedman said, adding that her subcommittee intends to fix that problem.

“Women are seeing maybe for the first time that their stories are going to be taken seriously,” Friedman said. “I feel a lot of pressure to do those women justice who have chosen to come forward.”

 


  • Jim Houck

    “At the Capitol, … meetings over drinks are common.” No wonder there’s a problem.

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