It’s been more than a decade since Lisa Kaplan largely “disappeared” from the Capitol community. Yet she’s still terrified to tell her story.
Kaplan, now a 42-year-old attorney with a private practice and a trustee for the Natomas Unified School District, says she dealt with harassment and inappropriate advances from men during several years at California’s Capitol. She eventually blew the whistle, she said, when a boss refused to give her a raise she expected and asked why she wouldn’t date him.
The complaint and Kaplan’s career went nowhere.
“You run the risk, when you file a complaint, of the good old boys network circling their wagons and finding a way to get you out,” Kaplan said. “They can start that rumor that ‘she’s difficult. She doesn’t do a good job. She lies.’ If enough of them out there whisper, who is going to hire you? That’s the underground current that existed then and still exists now.”
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A group of women who are calling attention to widespread allegations of sexual harassment and assault in California politics say Kaplan’s experience is emblematic of a culture of fear that leaves them feeling helpless and unable to speak up without risking their livelihoods.
A liberal Legislature that has strengthened whistleblower protections for public and private employers across the state of California is now facing allegations that it sweeps complaints against its own under the rug. In recent weeks, women who have worked in and around the Capitol have told countless stories of unwanted experiences they never officially reported out of fear of retaliation.
Unlike most state workers, legislative staff members are at-will employees who can be fired at any time.
The Legislature does not have whistleblower policies to prevent retaliation against employees who file complaints, a crucial point for some current staff members who do not feel comfortable speaking openly about their experiences.
While the Senate and Assembly rules committees are meant to act as a human resources department for their respective houses, the administrative staff is ultimately overseen by a panel of lawmakers.
Even if staff members take their complaints to court, they could find themselves up against their workplace.
California government code provides that public employees can ask their agency to defend them against civil actions brought against them related to their work there. That includes lawmakers, putting taxpayers on the hook for any settlements that result from those lawsuits. Over the past two decades, at least five cases have resulted in payouts totaling more than $850,000.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez said staff members she’s talked to over the years “feel completely vulnerable” about reporting misconduct, because nothing seems to remain private.
“It’s like junior high in that Capitol. You can’t change your socks without someone knowing about it,” the Lake Elsinore Republican said. “So even though it’s supposed to be quiet, the moment you make a complaint, everybody knows about it.”
HOW TO SAY NO WITHOUT SAYING NO
Kaplan made her complaint, and now is willing to tell her story publicly. But she still won’t publicly identify the men.
She says she went to work in the Legislature after law school because “I felt my voice would be heard more.”
Yet Kaplan found she was also expected to accept uncomfortable experiences “with a smile.”
At one point, she was caught off guard when she found a dinner with an assemblyman was just the two of them, and not the group she expected.
Kaplan remembers trying to steer the conversation away from personal talk to strictly professional matters after he said he wanted to work more “closely together.” At the end of the night, he drove her home and Kaplan went inside alone.
“I cannot recall to this day what I said to get into my apartment by myself without it being rude,” Kaplan said. “How do I in the nicest way say no without saying no?”
The culture was such that a veteran female lobbyist shared a few essential Capitol survival tips: Don’t go to certain bars by yourself, be aware of how you dress and don’t be caught alone with a male legislator.
Kaplan heeded the advice. But in a separate incident, she said she experienced hostile, demeaning and verbally abusive behavior by a high-level legislative aide who was angry because Kaplan wanted a raise and didn’t want to date him.
The raise, tied to a positive evaluation, was denied even though “the boss said I was doing a great job,” Kaplan said.
Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee, refused to verify or provide a copy of Kaplan’s complaint, saying she cannot discuss personnel issues. Kaplan no longer has a copy and requested one from Assembly rules. She was told the Assembly only keeps complaints and investigations on file for four years after the employee leaves the Legislature.
The Bee independently confirmed that Kaplan at the time discussed details of her treatment by a high-level aide with a Capitol co-worker, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. And Kaplan provided personal notes signed and dated from that period, saying she filed them with the complaint. The notes say she felt the aide’s behavior was the result of “calling him out for not getting my raise as was agreed to when I got hired.”
An internal employee took her statement and told her they would look into it, Kaplan said.
But the complaint defied the “unwritten rules” of the Legislature, Kaplan said.
“No one tells you this, per se, or says ‘don’t file a complaint,’ ” she said. “They say it can potentially ruin your career. It could be known.”
DIFFERENT RULES FOR LEGISLATURE?
She said the aide also asked her why he wasn’t good enough for her to date. But she said she didn’t include that in her complaint because it would increase the risk that she would be retaliated against, a “kiss of death” to her Capitol career.
Assemblywoman Melendez said women don’t feel safe reporting because the Legislature doesn’t offer to protect them for coming forward.
She has introduced legislation each of the past four years that would create whistleblower protections similar to those afforded to other state employees, including civil and criminal liability for retaliation. Her proposal originally emerged after two state senators were indicted on corruption charges.
But every year, the bill has received unanimous support in the Assembly and then died in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee chair, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, declined to comment on the measure. A Senate analysis of the most recent version said it is unclear how such protections could be instituted in an “at will” employment setting in which employees can be dismissed without any reason or warning.
Melendez said legislative lawyers have told her it’s possible to do and she hasn’t gotten a clear explanation from her colleagues.
“I have to surmise it’s because the body itself feels there is one set of rules for themselves and one set of rules for everybody else. I don’t know what other conclusion I can come to,” she said. “It’s great that the lid has been blown off of this. Now we need to do something about it.”
Micha Star Liberty, a California attorney who specializes in sexual harassment and assault cases, said the Capitol is a uniquely complicated environment for employees who may want to report misconduct. Not only is there no independent human resources department, most of them work for legislators who are ultimately accountable to voters, not bosses of their own.
“These are very strange dynamics,” Liberty said. “I’m hard-pressed to understand how a woman’s only (internal) remedy if she works in the Legislature is to report unlawful conduct to a group of her employer’s colleagues.”
If employees don’t want to file a complaint to lawmakers, they can report to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The department has the power to investigate a complaint and mediate between the parties. It can also provide the employee with a right-to-sue letter that allows them to take the case to court. Few women have taken advantage of that option.
Liberty said staff members who are unsure if their confidentiality will be maintained or wonder where the loyalties of the rules committees lie are unlikely to make formal complaints. She stressed the importance of independent investigations that don’t bring in the accused until absolutely necessary, to diminish the opportunity for retaliation.
“Are people being pressured not to report because the consequence is being outed, being gossiped about, being blacklisted?” she said. “Any institution where women are coming forward and other people are warning them don’t speak up about this because everyone will find out, of course it’s going to have a chilling effect.”
Elena Lee Reeder, a former legislative staff member for seven years who now runs her own political communications firm, wrote in an email that she had been hesitant to report to the Senate “repeated incidences of sexual harassment by a senior staffer” early in her career, “because I had heard that their primary concern is to protect the member’s reputation and not staff.”
“After my experience, I have always advised other women to punch first, hire an attorney, then go to rules,” she wrote.
Elise Gyore, chief of staff to state Sen. Richard Roth, told reporters last week she was groped by now-Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra at a public event eight years ago.
Gyore reported her incident when it happened. 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.”
But Gyore said she believes the Legislature could have done more to support and protect her, and understands how many women would opt not to report. She watched as Bocanegra, who last week issued a statement of apology, went on to win an Assembly seat with the support of many fellow Democrats.
“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.
Kaplan eventually left the Capitol community and built a career as a lawyer. By coming forward now, she worries that Sacramento politicos will retaliate against her in the school board election next year.
She said she hopes her story serves as a catalyst for change to ensure women don’t have to deal with this in the future. She wants women in the Capitol to be treated equally if they work hard.
“I’ve got two daughters,” she said. “If I’m not willing to stand up and say ‘no more,’ I ask myself what kind of mother am I, and how am I teaching them to be strong?”