What do you say when a woman who seems very credible makes an explosive accusation of sexual assault against a man who vehemently denies it?
On Monday, Sacramento-based lobbyist Pamela Lopez accused Matt Dababneh, a Southern California assemblyman, of trapping her in a Las Vegas bathroom and masturbating in front of her nearly two years ago. At the news conference, Lopez spoke unflinchingly about the abuse she suffered. She didn’t shy away from the horrific details.
One of the most powerful parts of the #MeToo campaign is that women are calling for an end to practices that have shielded abusers, molesters and criminal behavior. Having open, honest and, yes, uncomfortable conversations is just the start of this process.
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In Lopez’s case, the Las Vegas police should be investigating Dababneh. What Lopez alleges is not the act of a creep who makes inappropriate comments in the workplace. The accusation against Dababneh, if proven, is criminal behavior.
However, until it is proven, it’s reckless to convict him. In the cases of media stars such as Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, they admitted to a certain amount of wrongdoing. So did Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who announced Thursday that he would resign. But because Dababneh denies any assault, some formal process, criminal or legal, should investigate him. Innocent until proven guilty still matters.
The question is: Can you say that without being accused of enabling or excusing alleged abusers? At least on social media, that’s not fully clear. The court of public opinion too often goes straight to conviction, nuance and facts be damned.
In the past, instead of listening to Lopez, some people might have pointed a finger at her and asked: Why didn’t you call the cops that very day in January 2016? Why did you wait until nearly two years had elapsed before alleging behavior that should trigger a criminal investigation?
The #MeToo movement has shown just how professionally dangerous it was for women to take on powerful men with accusations of sexual misconduct. Multiple actresses have made credible claims that their careers suffered after rejecting Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
In Sacramento, accusations of sexual abuse in the state Capitol were blown open after more than 140 female legislators, lobbyists, political consultants and other women released an open letter calling out sexual harassment in California politics and the blackballing of those who speak out. The letter was accompanied by a website, We Said Enough, where women can share their stories.
Not long after the October release of the letter, The Bee reported that three staffers of Sen. Tony Mendoza were fired as allegations of misconduct were being filed against him to the Senate Rules Committee. Senate officials deny any link between the firings and the accusation that Mendoza invited a young, female job applicant to his Natomas home. At this stage, their denial deserves the benefit of the doubt, even though we now know sexual harassment allegations were not taken seriously enough at the Capitol in the past.
Two other women have since accused Mendoza of inappropriate behavior. At the urging of Senate leader Kevin de León, the Senate Rules Committee removed Mendoza as chair of the Senate Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee and other appointments, pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegations. It’s a good first step, but that alone won’t change the culture at the Capitol.
A hotline should be set up for women and men to report claims of abuse. More, there should be crisis counselors for the victims, an independent investigation of all claims, a uniform time frame for investigations to be vetted and resolved and an iron-clad rule that whistle blowers cannot be fired or threatened in any way.
Christine Pelosi, chair of the state Democratic Party woman’s caucus, has forcefully said that these reforms and others need to be enacted so more women can feel safe to share their stories of being harassed, abused and, yes, even raped. She also serves as the attorney for the We Said Enough campaign.
Pelosi generated headlines this past week by testifying at an Assembly hearing that there were “rapists” working at the state Capitol. It’s curious how that comment has not set off more alarm bells about the safety of people working there. But when I asked Pelosi on Twitter to name names, she took exception.
“#rapeculture is perpetuated when a @sacbee_news columnist demands that an attorney violate rape victims’ trust. Please know that I will not be bullied into breaking their confidence or using their pain for political or media gain,” Pelosi said in a tweet.
I responded: “No one is trying to bully you. On the contrary. But rape is a very serious accusation. Moreover, if it’s true that means there are potential victims out there. For their sake, people should know. So, who?”
She tweeted back: “What part of ‘I WILL NOT BETRAY THEIR CONFIDENCE’ did you miss the first time? @sacbee_news come collect your troll.”
After our online exchange, I called Pelosi and asked to meet with her in person, and there is nothing to suggest that she is anything but a sincere advocate for women.
Pelosi pushes back on any suggestion that her comments were hyperbolic. She points to the state legislature, which broadened the legal definition of rape in the past year.
Previously, some sexual acts were prosecuted as sexual assault and not rape. But now, the California Penal Code reads: “The Legislature finds and declares that all forms of non-consensual sexual assault may be considered rape for purposes of the gravity of the offense and the support of survivors.”
Using that standard, Pelosi said women at the Capitol have been raped. I told her I thought these women need to come forward. Easy for me to say, I know, but the men committing vile acts need to be exposed and stopped.
She countered that until reforms were enacted to protect whistleblowers, some women were fearful of naming their rapists.
And that’s what makes Lopez’s statement on Monday even more courageous. Lopez is putting herself out there in part to protect others. “I can’t have it on my conscience that this may happen again,” she said. “I’ve heard from enough women that I’m fearful and worried that this will happen again.”
Lopez encouraged other women to come forward. She said good lawyers are waiting to take these cases and support for victims.
If more women follow suit, they will pressure de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to create an atmosphere that encourages victims of sexual abuse to speak up and seek justice. They will expedite the creation of a system to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and also protect those who are falsely or wrongly accused.
Until those leaders and others act, this issue will be driven largely by the court of public opinion. It will remain rife with innuendo and secrets. It will pit people against each other when they shouldn’t be.
Like the women of We Said Enough, I too want a toxic culture to change. But let’s do it in a way that protects victims as well as the basic principles of due process.