The California Senate Rules Committee voted Thursday to keep Sen. Tony Mendoza on the payroll but away from the Senate for 60 days or until an investigation into sexual harassment allegations concludes.
The Artesia Democrat has been accused of sexual harassment and misconduct toward three female subordinates over the last 10 years. The allegations prompted the Senate to launch an investigation, which is not expected to finish up until sometime next month.
After receiving pressure from colleagues, Mendoza reluctantly agreed earlier this month to take a temporary paid leave of absence and pledged to return no later than Feb. 1. The Senate leader’s office had not received notice from Mendoza that he was willing to extend his leave while the probe continues.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León asked the Senate to vote on a resolution Thursday that allowed the Senate Rules Committee to extend a lawmaker’s voluntary leave of absence without his consent.
The Senate passed the measure with a 27-9 vote. Immediately after the floor session, the five-member Rules Committee voted unanimously to extend the leave for no more than 60 days.
Mendoza expressed his disappointment in the decision.
“The ad-hoc action today is now part of the pattern that contradicts the Senate’s commitment to reform and to an open, transparent and fair process as its action today was adopted without any notice to me,” Mendoza said in a statement.
Republicans and Democrats debated the resolution on the floor for more than an hour.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said the resolution violated Proposition 50, which voters approved in 2016, because it essentially allowed the Senate Rules Committee to suspend a lawmaker without a floor vote. A suspension must be supported by two-thirds of the members of the house under the law.
“In this instance what we’re doing is suspending him and we’re not having a vote on the floor,” Anderson said. “Call it what it is. Stop gaming the system and have a vote.”
Democrats countered that, regardless of the means, the resolution allowed the Rules Committee to require Mendoza to stay away from the Capitol and prevent him from influencing the ongoing investigation and witnesses. Mendoza, who continues to participate in events in his district, attempted to return to work in the building one week after he agreed to temporarily step down.
De León described the action as necessary given that the investigation is not finished. Members of both parties had previously expressed reservations about suspending Mendoza before that time.
“It’s not always neat,” de León said on the floor. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s beyond our reach. That’s why it’s called an independent investigative body.”
Before the vote, Mendoza distributed a letter criticizing the new investigative process and said it remains “dark” and “unclear.”
He said no one from the Senate asked him about extending his leave before Thursday, which the pro tem’s office refuted.
“If the body feels that it would increase the positive public perception of the investigation, this issue should be addressed with me directly before the leave expires,” Mendoza wrote to his colleagues.
Mendoza is accused of abusing his power last year by inviting home a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his office to go over her résumé for a full-time job opening. Another employee, meanwhile, has filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging she was fired in retaliation for telling Senate officials about Mendoza’s behavior toward the fellow. Mendoza and Senate officials denied any connection between the firing and the allegation.
Another woman, then-19-year-old intern Jennifer Kwart, said she accepted an invitation from his Assembly office to attend the 2008 state party convention and expected to join other co-workers in San Jose. Instead she found herself alone with Mendoza, who picked her up from the airport and took her to a hotel suite, where they drank alcohol from the mini-bar because she was underage. He denied the allegation.
A third woman, Haley Meyers, a former Mendoza aide, complained to the Assembly in 2010 about late-night text messages and other unwanted advances from her then-boss. Mendoza said a representative from the Assembly spoke with him and he made a strong commitment to correct any misunderstanding.
The allegations may cause political problems for Mendoza.
Local Democratic Party delegates in his 32nd Senate District are challenging his party endorsement, otherwise guaranteed for incumbents. This week, a handful of women’s organizations piled on and sent delegates in the district a letter asking them to refrain from supporting him at a pre-endorsement conference in the district on Saturday.