A longtime legislative staff member says she was groped by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra at a public event eight years ago and continues to deal with repercussions of what she feels was an inadequate response by the Legislature.
Elise Flynn Gyore described the terror she felt the night of April 29, 2009, when she says Bocanegra stalked her like a predator around a downtown Sacramento club, both before and after he grabbed her underneath her clothes.
“I felt very much like prey ... I really was fearful for my own safety,” Gyore said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee on Friday.
Bocanegra, a Democrat from Los Angeles who at the time worked as a chief of staff at the Capitol, was disciplined after an external investigation into the “inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact” found it “more likely than not that Mr. Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectations for professionalism.” Three years later, he was supported by many of his colleagues as he successfully ran for election in a San Fernando Valley district.
Gyore decided to come forward with her story following the release last week of an open letter decrying a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and abuse at the Capitol. Gyore was one of hundreds of women who signed the letter, and she is the first to openly name her alleged assailant. She decided to tell her story on the record for the first time to the Los Angeles Times.
In a statement, Bocanegra said he was “deeply regretful about putting someone in this position and I want to apologize most sincerely.”
“This unfortunate experience I was involved in as a staffer nearly 10 years ago was something I regret and learned from,” he said. “As to the complaint filed, I fully cooperated with the investigation and after a comprehensive review by an independent body, which included interviews of over a dozen witnesses, the investigation was closed. I will work closely with my colleagues to ensure all processes involving sexual harassment are handled properly and fairly and that no woman or man who has been harassed is retaliated against by members or staff.”
Gyore said she did not know who Bocanegra was when he first approached her at The Mix nightclub in downtown Sacramento during a party after work. She said she thought little of his initial clumsy effort to strike up a conversation, but then everywhere she went that evening, he was right next to her. At one point, she said, she was making her way through the crowded dance floor to get to the bathroom.
“And all of a sudden he was behind me, and put his hands up my blouse and down my blouse and was grabbing me,” she said. She was taken aback. “I said, ‘I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea.’ Which I now realize, like, why am I apologizing to this guy? But it’s so ingrained in us.”
Gyore said she might have brushed off the incident, but Bocanegra continued to pursue her: “I could not escape him.”
When she pointed him out to her boss, former Sen. Ron Calderon, who was also at the event, Gyore said Bocanegra seemed defiant.
“He wasn’t scared, and that’s what made me so scared,” she said. “I really was in fight-or-flight mode. I really thought he was going to follow me to my car.”
Gyore said she finally found an acquaintance who could escort her to the parking garage, and then she burst into tears as she called her husband on the drive home. With hints from people she spoke to at the party that the mystery man was the chief of staff to former Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, Gyore said a friend of hers was able to find Bocanegra on Facebook.
The next day, Gyore said, she debated heavily whether or not to report her complaint. Her sense, after years working at the Capitol, was that she could ultimately suffer more professional consequences from speaking up than her assailant would.
Gyore said staff members at the Capitol rarely feel comfortable making complaints about misconduct they experience. She said she knows people who have been harangued into signing nondisclosure agreements. Women are more likely to turn to each other discreetly for help in finding a new job in another office, she said.
“You have to weigh the pros and cons for you, of how you could be embarrassed, of how you could be seen as bucking things, drawing attention to yourself, embarrassing the members,” she said. She did not want to be seen as a troublemaker.
When she did ultimately go to the Senate sergeants about what happened, she said she felt supported. The Assembly conducted what she felt was an extensive investigation, which included interviewing 13 other individuals who were at The Mix that night, according to a letter provided to Gyore at the conclusion of the investigation.
But officials rejected her request that Bocanegra, who worked on the same floor as her, be moved to a new office, Gyore said.
“Mr. Bocanegra will be instructed not to communicate with you if you happen to encounter one another in the Capitol or at legislative events,” the letter states. “The Assembly Rules Committee will also be taking additional appropriate action to help ensure there are no recurring issues.”
Gyore believes the “additional appropriate action” was further sexual harassment training, though she does not know. She said Bocanegra kept his distance, and she avoided him when she saw him in the hallway.
“As soon as I’d see him, if he was taking the stairs, I’m taking the elevator,” she said. “If you’re taking the elevator, I don’t care how bad my feet are hurting, I’m taking the stairs.”
Then two years later, she got a job in the Assembly working for then-Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell. Gyore said she went to the Assembly administration about what her protections were and was told there were none.
“ ‘I don’t think you’re going to have any trouble, because I really think he’s learned his lesson,’ ” she said she was told. She said her response was, “I’m glad he could learn that lesson at my expense.”
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, and Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, the chair and vice chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, on Friday called on leadership to review Bocanegra’s “and any other members’ – behavior that render them unfit to hold office and immediately enforce, for once, the bodies’ zero-tolerance policies.”
“The absence of repercussions is yet another example of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment within California politics,” they said in a statement. “It has resulted in the complicity that has given rise to the power and influence these men possess within the establishment. The lack of protections for victims is further proof of why they stay silent within these halls.”
In a statement, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he appreciated “Ms. Gyore’s bravery in bringing this incident forward,” but he did not announce any further actions regarding Bocanegra.
“We have to change the culture in the Capitol and in society and her experience shows why,” he said. “How incidents of harassment were handled in the past can inform our current efforts to improve the system and to build a future where these injustices are prevented before they happen and no employee has to fear harassment or abuse.”
Bocanegra’s election in 2012 ensured he would continue to work in the same building as Gyore. It also meant watching other lawmakers, including her own former boss, Calderon, endorse him.
“It definitely lets me know where my place is,” she said. “I felt like I got punched in the gut.”
Gyore said she has had to tell each new office she joins, including that of Sen. Richard Roth, where she is now the chief of staff, what happened and why she cannot work with Bocanegra. Now she is ready to speak openly about the incident, she said, because she no longer wants to be “complicit” in the Capitol covering up the misconduct of its own members.
“I have heard a lot of scary stories that make what happened to me look like nothing. And certain names come up again and again and again,” she said. “And I can’t abide by it. I can’t. If a chief of staff can’t speak about it, who can?”
Some harassment complaints in the Legislature have ended with taxpayer-funded settlements for the accusers. Over the past two decades, at least five have resulted in payouts totaling more than $850,000. Earlier this year, the Assembly agreed to a $100,000 settlement against former Assemblyman Steve Fox, who a staff member alleged had exposed himself to her, among other transgressions.
Taryn Luna of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.