Capitol Alert

California lawmakers pledge to work together on sexual harassment – then act alone

Women in Sacramento have been clamoring for the California Senate and Assembly to establish a single approach to address sexual harassment in the Capitol community.

Jennifer Kwart, who testified at an Assembly hearing last month, said that such an approach would have helped her after Sen. Tony Mendoza took her to his hotel room for a drink when she was a 19-year-old intern. Mendoza, who has said he welcomes a fair investigation into accusations against him, was an assemblyman then; he’s now a state senator.

“I do feel strongly that a unified singular process is badly needed,” Kwart said in her testimony. “These situations don’t necessarily fit neatly into our individual silos.”

Legislative leaders say they want to deliver that unified process. Yet so far each house, known for the tension between them, has taken independent approaches.

Following allegations against Mendoza, the Senate began outlining a series of changes to its sexual harassment policies. At a press conference last week, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León hailed the Senate’s reforms as unprecedented for “any legislative institution in the United States.”

The pro tem announced the hiring of law firms, Van Dermyden Maddux and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to investigate future sexual harassment allegations involving senators and Senate employees.

They provided a phone number for confidential reporting of allegations, 800-729-1443.

Standing next to Beth Hassett, the chief executive of WEAVE, de León said the Senate hired her Sacramento nonprofit to provide support services and counseling to victims of sexual misconduct. WEAVE will offer a crisis hotline for victims to seek services and work with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault to develop training programs for the Senate and lobbyists.

He said the Senate Judiciary Committee would begin hearings on sexual harassment policies in all California industries beginning next month. De León also said he would work with the Assembly to adopt a bicameral approach “to ensure all legislative employees have the protections they need to feel safe and respected in their workplace.”

The Assembly has taken a separate path.

That house held the first of a series of hearings last month to investigate sexual harassment at the Capitol, at which Kwart testified. It aimed to create a transparent process to determine necessary changes to “a culture that has for far too long been silent and protective of people who use their positions of power to prey on others,” as Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, said.

Assembly members grilled employees of the Assembly Rules Committee on how they handle sexual harassment allegations and criticized the house for not keeping records of complaints against lawmakers.

Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer the Assembly, said in an email last week that the house hires outside law firms to investigate cases “deemed serious.” She would not say which law firms the Assembly uses.

Gravert said the Assembly is finalizing its own agreement with WEAVE to provide a hotline for support services. She did not answer a question about whether the Assembly would set up a hotline for people to report allegations.

“We think it’s important to work with the Senate to find a process that both houses can adopt,” she said.

The pro tem’s office said the houses are working together to establish a singular hotline for victims to report allegations and are in the midst of a two-house climate survey of legislative employees to understand their perspectives on the Legislature’s policies and systems.

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Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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