Capitol Alert

Testimony on sexual harassment at California Capitol begins

Today is the day formal discussions begin at the Capitol about how to change a culture that a growing number of women say has not done enough to discourage sexual harassment.

The Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response (the name itself is long enough to suggest there might be a problem) will hold its first hearing at 1:30 p.m. in Room 4202 at the Capitol.

Assembly Rules Committee chair Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, will open with an overview of existing law and Assembly policy, followed by a review of the Assembly’s current harassment prevention efforts by Lauri Damrell of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, the firm that conducts the Assembly’s training.

Members are then scheduled to take testimony from Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist with K Street Consulting, who has previously said a current California legislator locked her in a bathroom last year and masturbated in front of her.

Next on the agenda is Jennifer Kwart, who told The Sacramento Bee that she had an uncomfortable encounter with then-Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, in a hotel room when she was a 19-year-old intern in his Norwalk district office in 2008.

The emphasis will be on discussing the problem generally, not necessarily naming names, said Allison Ruff, chief of staff to subcommittee chair Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale.

“We’re not requiring anyone to come forward,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone feels safe discussing their own experiences or sharing recommendations.”

Others testifying include Christine Pelosi, chair, of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, and Samantha Corbin and Alicia Lewis of We Said Enough, a group of women leaders in state politics demanding systemic changes. Jean Hyams, president of the California Employment Lawyers Association, and Genie Harrison, an employment and victim’s rights attorney with Consumer Attorneys of California, will also speak.

Even before the hearing, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, resigned Monday and the Senate Rules committee stripped Mendoza of his leadership posts amid sexual harassment allegations.

The Legislature has paid at least five settlements to victims of sexual harassment over the past two decades, totaling more than $850,000. In April, the Assembly reached another $100,000 settlement in a harassment, discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against former Assemblyman Steve Fox.

Among the ideas? Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, one of the lawmakers who plans to attend the hearing, said he is considering introducing legislation next session that would require lawmakers, rather than taxpayers, to foot the bill for their own sexual harassment settlements.

“We could deduct their pay. If they’re a former legislator, we could go after them in the judicial process,” McCarty said. “Some people have suggested you don’t pay out at all. But that would mean some people who are harmed, harassed, have zero recourse.”

WORTH REPEATING: “He understands that innovative policy without smart politics is just a good idea.” – Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, endorsing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for governor.

Amy Chance: 916-326-5535, @Amy_Chance