SACRAMENTO (AP) — A committee tasked with revising the California Assembly’s sexual harassment policies offered a sharply critical assessment Tuesday of the existing process for investigating misconduct.
“Does anybody here think the current policy is working?” Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong asked after more than an hour of probing questions.
The six-member committee pushed Assembly human resources staff and Assemblyman Ken Cooley, chair of the rules committee, for more than two hours to detail how harassment complaints against members are handled. They pressed for answers on how many complaints have been filed against lawmakers, who decides if complaints are sent to an outside investigator and whether the process is set up to favor lawmakers over victims.
At nearly every turn, the members expressed skepticism of the Assembly current “zero-tolerance” harassment policy.
“The term zero tolerance creates an expectation that clearly at this point is not being met or even trusted,” Democratic Assemblyman Tim Grayson said.
In a particularly confusing set of exchanges, Assembly Chief Administrative Officer Debra Gravert said the Assembly does not track harassment complaints made against lawmakers, then said she’s received at least one complaint against a member in the past six months. She could not say whether any of the eight sexual harassment investigations in the last five years involved lawmakers.
Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, called for the public hearings after women who work in and around California’s capital spoke out in October about a culture they believe shields perpetrators and discourages victims from coming forward. Several of those women were set to testify. Tuesday’s hearing is the first of several that are planned.
The hearings come a day after the first lawmakers resigned as a result of the increased focus on harassment. Democratic Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra of Los Angeles stepped down after multiple women accused him or kissing or groping them without consent. Despite stepping down, he said an investigation would’ve cleared his name.
Following a run-down of the chamber’s existing harassment policies and prevention training, several women were set to testify on their perspectives on the Capitol culture.
One of them is Jennifer Kwart, who accused Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza of taking her to a hotel suite and offering her alcohol when she was a 19-year-old intern in his office. Kwart, who now works for Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, first spoke publicly about Mendoza’s behavior to the Sacramento Bee. A Mendoza spokesman called the allegations “completely false.” A Senate panel stripped Mendoza of his committee chairmanship Monday.
Also set to testify is Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and co-founder of the “We Said Enough” campaign, which first kicked off the conversation about harassment in Sacramento. Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party’s women’s caucus will also speak.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, the subcommittee chair, said she hopes to create an atmosphere where women feel comfortable sharing their stories and offering insight on how the capital culture can be improved.
“No one should be afraid to come to work, and we have that situation right now,” she said.