'We are so aware of how powerless we are'
A lobbyist who says a sitting lawmaker trapped her in a bathroom and masturbated in front of her told legislators Tuesday that she has not yet named the perpetrator because she fears retaliation that could hurt her ability to make a living.
Pamela Lopez, a partner in K Street consulting, told an Assembly subcommittee investigating sexual harassment at the Capitol that she has long experienced sexual harassment and even assault in her time working in politics.
“I can stand here and tell you as a 35-year-old woman what it’s like to experience sexual assault at the hands of a powerful colleague who in this instance happened to be a lawmaker,” she said. “I can also tell you stories about 23-year-old me and 26-year-old me and even younger me when I was volunteering on campaigns.”
In a business that relies on relationships, she said she worries that naming names would damage her ability to connect in the Capitol. “I know that people will whisper behind my back. I know that people will snicker at me as I walk by.”
“Women have an instinctive desire to hide what has happened to us. It’s because we recognize that if anyone finds out something has happened to us, our own careers may be in danger.”
Instead, a “whisper network” takes the place of formal reporting about sexual assault and harassment said Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus.
“We have rapists in this building. We have molesters among us.” she said. “There are perpetrators, enforcers and enablers in this building, and ... a lot of us know who they are. We find out through that whisper network. People do talk, they just don’t come forward.”
Lopez has previously told media outlets that she was accosted by a lawmaker last year who followed her into a restroom, locked the door and masturbated in front of her.
She told lawmakers that interns and younger workers are particularly vulnerable. She said some are simply “disappeared” from the Capitol community.
“Simply by being the victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault...a woman becomes evidence of wrongdoing on the part of her perpetrator,” she said. “And the easiest way to get rid of that evidence is to get rid of that woman.”
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, chair of the the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response, said the hearing was only the beginning, setting the stage for a “serious and comprehensive” effort to change the Assembly’s harassment policies, procedures and training.
“In doing so, we can begin to change a culture that has for far too long been silent and protective of people who use their positions of power to prey on others,” she said. “We have been told about retaliation, lack of confidentiality, and a sense that members are protected at all costs. This has to end. Victims must not only be protected, their testimony must be encouraged because everyone deserves a safe space in which to work. In fact, California law requires it.”
Subcommittee members grappled with how to apply harassment law to elected officials, who don’t have personnel files, and whether a complaint reporting process currently governed by a committee of lawmakers is truly independent.
They also touched on possibilities for change – from prohibiting use of cellphones during mandatory sexual harassment training to setting up a system for anonymous complaints.
The committee in charge of policing sexual harassment in the state Assembly doesn’t keep track of complaints, staff members told legislators Tuesday.
Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, said the committee tracks only investigations she and human resources officials decide to conduct. Not all complaints about behavior – such as someone asking someone else for a date – violate sexual harassment policy, she said. In the last six years, it has conducted eight investigations, she said.
The disclosure appeared to make several members of the subcommittee investigating the issue unhappy.
Tracking complaints, said Assemblyman Tim Grayson, D-Concord, could help find a problem before it reaches a systemic level.
Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Ken Cooley appeared to agree. “It kind of goes to setting the tone,” said Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova. “Are we driving the message from the top that this sort of conduct is unacceptable?”
Lobbyist Samantha Corbin encouraged subcommittee members to rethink what might be considered sexual harassment under the current policy.
“A suggestion was made earlier that it is not sexual harassment if someone asks someone out on a date,” she said. “I beg to differ, because if the chair of appropriations was to ask me out on a date, I would certainly feel pressured. If a fellow was asked out by their boss, they certainly would feel pressured.”
“I think, at a minimum, we can understand that the power dynamics unique to our community makes these situations very different and worthy of a higher level of discourse,” Corbin added.
The hearing was announced last month, after nearly 150 women released an open letter denouncing “pervasive” sexual harassment in California politics. We Said Enough, the group of lobbyists, Capitol staff members, political consultants and others who organized the letter, has urged legislative leaders to overhaul an institutional culture that they say sweeps sexual misconduct under the rug and discourages women from reporting harassment for fear of losing their jobs.
The outcry has already led Senate and Assembly officials to rethink some of their policies; earlier this month, the Senate announced that it would hire an outside law firm to handle all sexual misconduct complaints going forward. But We Said Enough and some female lawmakers are pushing the Legislature to go further, including extending whistleblower protections to at-will Capitol staffers and creating a confidential reporting hotline.
Two sitting lawmakers have been implicated so far: Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Los Angeles Democrat, resigned on Monday amid mounting allegations that he groped or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward at least seven women, including some of his subordinates, while working as a chief of staff and serving in the Legislature. Bocanegra continued to deny that he did anything wrong, though he admitted he was “not perfect.”
The Senate on Monday also stripped Sen. Tony Mendoza of his committee chairmanship and two commissioner posts while it investigates complaints about his behavior toward a fellow who worked in the office, including that he invited her to his home to review her résumé.
Since then, two more women have come forward alleging that Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward them when they worked for him. Jennifer Kwart, a legislative staff member who testified at the hearing on Tuesday, previously told The Bee that Mendoza took her to a hotel suite at a state party convention in 2008 and gave her alcohol, even though she was underage.