A look at the #MeToo movement inside California's Capitol
A second young woman is alleging that state Sen. Tony Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward her while she was employed by the Artesia Democrat.
The woman, Jennifer Kwart, came forward with her account hours after The Bee published a story Thursday about a Senate investigation of allegations that Mendoza on at least two occasions invited a 23-year-old fellow to his home to review her résumé for an open job in his office earlier this year.
Kwart said her encounter with Mendoza occurred when she was a 19-year-old intern in his Norwalk district office in 2008, when Mendoza was 36 and in the state Assembly, and involved a trip to the California Democratic Party’s state convention in San Jose that year.
Staff in Mendoza’s office invited her to attend the convention in March, according to Kwart and a former Mendoza staff member. Kwart said she assumed other employees were going, but instead, Mendoza picked her up from the airport and took her to a hotel suite. At his suggestion, they had drinks from the mini-bar in the suite’s living area, despite her age, Kwart said.
“Then and now, I feel like I was very trapped,” Kwart said. “I was in a place that I had never been to before. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a way out.”
A spokesman for Mendoza, given a summary of allegations, said Friday they were “completely false.” He did not respond to more specific follow-up questions that included Kwart’s name.
Kwart currently works for Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, as his district office director. She officially reported her experience for the first time to a supervisor Thursday, she said, after reading The Bee story about the Senate investigation into similar allegations against Mendoza involving the other young woman.
She said the supervisor reported it to the Assembly Rules Committee. When contacted by The Bee on Friday, a spokesperson for Chiu said the office follows all procedures for reporting incidents of harassment or intimidation brought to their attention.
Officials with the Senate and Assembly did not answer inquiries about whether a complaint involving Kwart’s allegations had been received, or if so, whether the Rules Committees in both houses would be working together on the allegations against Mendoza.
Kwart, now 28, did not report her encounter with Mendoza to the Assembly in 2008.
“I was very young and naive,” she said. “It was my first professional setting and I just didn’t know what to do at the time.”
The Bee confirmed pieces of Kwart’s account with her mother, Anita Loritz, and a close friend. She texted them during the convention and later recounted the story to them, they said. A former Mendoza aide confirmed other details.
Kwart said Mendoza took an interest in her from the beginning of her internship in the spring semester of 2008, inviting her to lunch with him and to help him run errands on Fridays he spent in the Norwalk office. The internship, which started in February, was her first job, and she said she didn’t think it was strange at the time because she had no other comparisons.
A former senior aide in Mendoza’s district office, who fears retaliation and asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that Mendoza took Kwart to one-on-one lunches.
Kwart said that a different Mendoza aide, now Westminster City Councilman Sergio Contreras, invited her to attend the 2008 California Democratic Party convention free of charge in San Jose in late March. She accepted the offer.
The former Mendoza senior aide who wished to remain anonymous confirmed that the office sent Kwart to the convention that year.
The aide remembers thinking it was inappropriate for the legislator to single out Kwart as a young intern to travel and assist Mendoza at public and private events, especially when staff members were available.
Kwart said she was surprised when her Southwest Airlines flight landed Friday, March 28, and Contreras told her Mendoza would pick her up from the San Jose airport. Mendoza arrived and they drove to a hotel near the convention. Contreras could not be reached for comment.
Kwart doesn’t recall the name of the hotel. Mendoza’s campaign finance filing from March to May of 2008 details two charges of $409 and $703.20 at The Fairmont Hotel in San Jose for candidate travel, lodging or meals and an $134.50 payment to Southwest Airlines for spouse or staff travel, lodging or meals. The hotel is three blocks from the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
Kwart described the sequence of events.
She said Mendoza took her to a suite with a common living area and a bedroom. Kwart had a room that connected to the suite but also had a separate entrance to the hallway.
Too young to drink legally at the hotel bar, Kwart said Mendoza suggested they drink from the mini-bar in the common area of the suite when they arrived at the hotel. She said he made her feel uncomfortable with questions about her ex-boyfriends, taste in men and her personal life.
On the elevator on their way to convention in the late afternoon, she said he told her he didn’t want to spend too much time at the convention that evening because “then we won’t have time for anything else.” She said the conversation is “burned in my brain.”
“I interpreted that to mean this guy thinks I’m going to have sex with him,” Kwart said.
Over the course of the day, she said she felt an increasingly strong need to leave. She said the last straw for her was when Mendoza introduced her to two other state lawmakers and their side glances bothered her.
“I had this overwhelming feeling that they knew about me,” Kwart said. “I felt like everyone there knew something that I didn’t.”
During a dinner alone with Mendoza that evening, she faked a phone call to excuse herself. She secretly called her mother and asked her to book a flight home immediately, she said. She told Mendoza that her grandfather suffered a stroke and she would have to return to Los Angeles.
The next available flight wasn’t until early Saturday morning, she said. After dinner, Kwart retreated to her room, closed the door and did not emerge for the rest of the evening, she said. Her mother remembers telling her to lock the door, but Kwart said she cannot remember if she did.
She said she went straight out of the door of her room into the hotel hallway the next day to catch a cab to the airport. Loritz recalls advising her daughter on how to safely navigate the situation via text and phone calls.
“I was concerned that if I stayed there, at some point whether it was later that night or during that weekend, that it would extend to an actual physical advance,” Kwart said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation.”
Kwart and Loritz recall discussing whether she should continue her internship in the district office. Mendoza appeared infrequently – about once a week – and she decided to try to stick it out. She answered the phones, and Mendoza’s calls brought back memories of the convention.
She said she left after a week or two and “never came back.”
Kwart made the decision to come forward now, she said, after reading The Sacramento Bee story on Thursday that felt so familiar to her experience with Mendoza it gave her “the chills.”
In that instance, Mendoza did not answer a question about whether he invited the young woman, a Sacramento State fellow, to his house to review her résumé in a text after a party at a downtown Sacramento nightclub. But he said “absolutely not” in response to an allegation that he suggested the young woman could stay in his room before an early fundraiser the next day at Cache Creek.
“I had no intention of telling this story,” Kwart said. “My reason for this is that he had flatly denied what happened to this girl and it felt similar to me.”
In response to the allegations about the Sacramento State fellow, Mendoza, who is married with four children, said he would never knowingly abuse his authority or put an employee in an uncomfortable position.
“If I’ve communicated or miscommunicated anything that has ever made a female employee feel uncomfortable,” he said, “then I am deeply embarrassed and I will immediately apologize.”
California’s Capitol has been steeped in controversy since hundreds of women in October signed a letter decrying sexual harassment in state politics. The accusations come from women lobbyists, lawmakers and staff members who say they’ve experienced harassment and even sexual assault on the job.
Many The Bee contacted declined to name their harasser or detail their experiences publicly fearing doing so would hurt their careers. Others have alleged they were retaliated against after filing formal complaints with the Legislature.