Capitol Alert

Matt Dababneh will resign from California Assembly after sex assault allegation

Facing complaints of sexual harassment and assault from two women, Assemblyman Matt Dababneh announced Friday that he will resign at the end of the year.

The Los Angeles Democrat was accused Monday of pushing Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez into a bathroom at a Las Vegas hotel last year and masturbating in front of her. Jessica Yas Barker, a former employee who worked under Dababneh in U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman’s district office, said he created a hostile work environment full of sexual and derogatory remarks.

Dababneh denies the allegations. In an interview, he said he took the charges personally and was leaving office to focus on clearing his name.

He added that he did not feel pressured to resign, but said the claims against him had knocked him off his feet. After spending more time with his family this week, he said, he realized that “the passion to serve in a public capacity isn’t there” and “I’m ready for a change in my life.”

“I prayed about it, and I talked to a lot of people about it, and it just felt like the right time to step down,” Dababneh said. “I just felt I would not be able to serve to the degree of detail and to the degree of involvement that I’m used to, and that my community expects.”

Lopez said in an interview that resigning “is the first of many steps that Matt Dababneh will need to take to atone for his actions.”

She said that, since Monday, she has heard from other women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by Dababneh, and she is encouraging them to come forward to get access to counseling and an opportunity for justice. Dababneh’s resignation alone will not make them whole again, she said, and she pressed the California political community to fix a system where Dababneh “was allowed to do these things in the first place and get away with this.”

Lopez also suggested that Dababneh should donate the money he raised for his 2018 re-election bid, reported in June at nearly $1.1 million, to trauma and rape crisis centers.

“His words sound like they are coming from a person who will continue to behave in this way,” she said. “I am scared that a person is going to engage in other professional communities not having learned a single thing about how he has abused or victimized women.”

Dababneh, 36, was first elected to his San Fernando Valley seat in a tight 2013 special election. He quickly rose to chair the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee, and often carried bills on animal welfare issues.

The political and professional fallout has been swift since Lopez and Barker held a press conference in Sacramento on Monday.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Chiang and the local Democratic Party in Dababneh’s district called on him to resign, while a handful of his legislative colleagues publicly expressed support for Lopez. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, said on social media that she would “not work with Mr. Dababneh or any individual who engages in abusive behavior.”

In a statement Friday, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said, “Matt Dababneh’s resignation is yet another sign that the culture is changing. The Assembly will continue our work to hasten the change, to make the Legislature an institution where people are safe, survivors are helped, and perpetrators are held accountable.”

The Assembly also launched a formal investigation into the Las Vegas incident after Lopez on Monday filed a report with the Assembly Rules Committee. Her lawyer on Friday provided The Bee with a letter, sent to the committee, seeking information about the investigator, the scope of the inquiry and potential conflicts of interest that she said will help Lopez feel safe participating in the process.

Dababneh said he will cooperate fully with the investigation, even after his resignation.

“This is a very divisive situation. Hopefully the investigation will provide clarity for all,” he said.

Dababneh expressed support for the #MeToo campaign, a social media movement that over the past two months has prompted a national conversation about sexual harassment. He said he approves of the Legislature’s efforts to overhaul a sexual misconduct reporting process that many women complain fails to provide protection for victims.

“I have profound respect for anyone who comes forward about sexual harassment,” he said.

But he declined to say why he believed Lopez and Barker were making up what he maintains are false stories about his behavior: “I don’t want to get into that, and I have no idea, and I will leave that for the investigation to figure out,” he said.

A lawyer for Dababneh sent Lopez a letter last week demanding that she “cease and desist from reporting any false charge of sexual harassment against Mr. Dababneh” or “you will be held fully accountable in damages.” Dababneh said Friday he was not in a hurry to file a defamation suit against Lopez.

He also denied any inappropriate behavior toward interns who worked with him in Sherman’s district office. Jonathan Bash, a former president of Bruin Democrats at UCLA, told The Bee on Monday that he and other leaders of the club advised female members for years not to intern with Dababneh because of problems with sexual harassment.

“I think these are just petty people,” Dababneh said. “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

We Said Enough, a group of women in California politics that has mobilized against sexual misconduct at the Capitol and beyond, praised “the bravery of the silence breakers who came forward.”

“This second resignation in a matter of weeks further demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem and the continued need for confidential reporting, whistleblower protections and appropriate due process so that victims no longer have to litigate their issues in the press,” the organizers said in a statement.

Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Los Angeles Democrat, resigned late last month after seven women said he groped or made inappropriate sexual advances toward them during his time as a Capitol chief of staff and lawmaker. Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, is also currently under investigation for allegedly behaving inappropriately toward multiple former female employees.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

Related stories from Sacramento Bee