Senate asks Tony Mendoza to take leave of absence pending harassment investigation
A former Capitol employee has filed a discrimination complaint against Sen. Tony Mendoza, the California Senate and two legislative officials, alleging that she was retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment.
Adriana Ruelas, a longtime Capitol employee and Mendoza’s former legislative director, alleges that the state Senate fired her and two others in September after they complained to superiors and human resources workers about Mendoza’s inappropriate behavior toward a young woman assigned to his Capitol office through a prestigious Sacramento State fellows program.
The Senate has denied any connection between the complaints and the firings, arguing that employees complained about Mendoza’s alleged behavior only after they were fired.
Ruelas detailed her allegations in a discrimination complaint she filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, among the preliminary steps the state requires someone to take before they can file a lawsuit. The complaint, a “right to sue” letter and other forms were sent last week to the state Senate, Mendoza, Secretary of the Senate Danny Alvarez and Jeannie Oropeza, the house’s head of human resources.
It’s unclear if and when Ruelas will file a lawsuit. Micha Star Liberty, a lawyer for Ruelas, said her client is “still in the process of considering all of her legal remedies.”
The Bee reported in November allegations confirmed by multiple sources that Mendoza invited the young woman, who was seeking a job in his office, to his Sacramento home on more than one occasion and had terminated three of his employees.
The complaint filed with the state alleges that David Pacheco, director of the Sacramento State Senate Fellows program, asked Ruelas to watch out for the fellow’s safety in late 2016, noting that Mendoza had “issues with women” in the past.
Sacramento State later placed Pacheco on “indefinite leave” in November after The Bee reported allegations that he advised the 23-year-old fellow against taking any immediate action when she complained to him about Mendoza’s behavior. Pacheco’s supervisor at the university said the director did not report the harassment to Sacramento State.
Pacheco, Alvarez and Oropeza could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
In the complaint, Ruelas alleges that in late February Mendoza asked the fellow to drive him to Napa for an overnight Latino Caucus Foundation event an hour before they had to leave. She says the fellow expressed concern and told her she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Stacey Brown, a scheduler for Mendoza who was also fired, worked with Latino Caucus staff members to secure a separate room for the fellow, according to the complaint.
The fellow later told Ruelas that Mendoza volunteered to walk her to her hotel room that night and said he would check in on her later to see if they “could do something,” according to Ruelas’ complaint. The fellow told Ruelas she slept in a different room with another fellow because she felt uncomfortable and nervous about Mendoza returning, it says.
Later on in August, the complaint says, Mendoza asked the fellow to drive him to Cache Creek the night before a golf tournament fundraiser. When the fellow asked if she should talk to other staff members about getting her own hotel room, Mendoza told her not to and said they would figure it out together, according to Ruelas. The fellow drove up the next morning instead,
The day of the fundraiser, Ruelas says in the complaint, it was apparent the fellow “felt uncomfortable and was nervous” during a phone call.
In the following days, Mendoza invited the fellow to come over to his house to review a binder of resumes, the complaint says. Then, on Aug. 31, Mendoza invited the fellow to a second party after a mixer, according to the complaint. It says she declined and he sent her a text message inviting her to join him at home that night to go over resumes, an invitation she also declined.
By August, Eusevio Padilla, Mendoza's then chief of staff, told Ruelas that he had been reporting Mendoza’s “sexually inappropriate behavior” toward the fellow to Oropeza since February, Ruelas says in the complaint. He also told Ruelas that he intended to meet with Oropeza on August 10 to discuss the concerns once again, it says.
Oropeza called the office that day looking for Padilla and Ruelas answered, she said. Ruelas wrote in the complaint that she told Oropeza all of the allegations against Mendoza were true. She said Oropeza acknowledged that it was “bad.”
About a week later, Padilla again reported that he spoke with Oropeza about the senator’s behavior with the fellow. Another staff member also complained, according to Ruelas.
Ruelas said she offered additional details to Oropeza in a meeting at Mendoza’s office on Sept. 22 – the day Ruelas, Padilla and Brown were fired. Ruelas later signed a confidentiality agreement and a non-disparagement agreement in exchange for a few weeks of severance pay, according to the complaint.
The Bee heard several staff members were fired in Mendoza’s office and asked why in late September. A spokesman for Mendoza in Los Angeles said the senator needed staff members who focus on policy areas that he took on under new committee assignments. He described the staff who were let go as “excellent,” but said the senator wanted to make a change.
Mendoza and the Senate later said the employees were fired for performance issues. In the complaint, Ruelas said Mendoza reassured her that her work was excellent on more than one occasion, calling his statement an example of public defamation.
Two other women have come forward with allegations against Mendoza since The Bee reported the story about the Senate fellow.
A second woman, Jennifer Kwart, alleged that she attended the 2008 California Democratic Party state convention at the invitation of his district office and arrived in San Jose to find herself alone with Mendoza in his hotel suite. Mendoza gave the then 19-year-old intern alcohol and asked her personal questions about her taste in men, prompting the young woman to call her mother to book an early flight home, she said. Mendoza has called the accusation “completely false.”
A third woman, Haley Myers, said she complained to human resources in the Assembly in 2010 that Mendoza engaged in behavior that she considers sexual harassment when she worked as a legislative aide for him in Sacramento. Mendoza acknowledged he was contacted about his behavior in that instance, and said he resolved to correct any misunderstanding.
In light of the allegations, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León last month asked Mendoza to temporarily step down from office pending the results of an investigation by an outside law firm. Mendoza refused.
Late Tuesday, he requested an audit of the way the Legislature conducts investigations of sexual harassment, saying the current system “is not working for the accusers, or the accused.”
Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, has pledged to call a floor vote to remove Mendoza from office when the Senate resumes its legislative session on Wednesday.