Capitol Alert

California Legislature will overhaul sex harassment policies through joint committee

The two houses of California’s Legislature are finally working together to address sexual misconduct at the Capitol.

The Senate and Assembly announced Wednesday that they will form a joint committee to create uniform sexual harassment policies governing how they investigate claims and protect employees who bring forward complaints. The eight-member committee will hold its first hearing later this month.

“While we are two different houses, it is important we speak with one voice: sexual harassment and abuse have to stop and everyone in the Capitol community must feel safe,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem de León said in a statement. “This joint committee will combine the efforts already underway in the Senate and Assembly and lead the way forward in a bicameral and bipartisan way to ensure the needed changes and protections can be put in place as quickly as possible.”

The announcement came as lawmakers returned to Sacramento, after more than three months in recess, for the start of a new legislative session. Sexual harassment was the focus on the first day back, with legislators also introducing several proposals to address misconduct among their own ranks and in other sectors of society.

From the dais of the Assembly chamber, Rendon encouraged his colleagues to “rise above the Legislature’s record on preventing sexual harassment” and “build a community of active protectors.”

“Every year brings its challenges, but the current year contains a challenge that is markedly different, because it is within,” he said. “On this issue, we must become what California is on so many other issues: an example of how to go forward.”

The Senate and Assembly have separately reviewed and revised their sexual misconduct policies since the release of an open letter in October urged them to fix a “pervasive” culture of harassment and abuse in California politics. But We Said Enough, the organization of female lobbyists, legislative staffers and political consultants behind the letter, has been critical of the two houses for not coordinating their efforts. The Senate hired two law firms to independently investigate future complaints, while the Assembly began public hearings to solicit input on improving its sexual harassment procedures and training.

Rendon told reporters Wednesday that the Joint Committee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response will take over the work of the Assembly panel.

The committee will be chaired by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat who was overseeing the Assembly hearings, and co-chaired by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles. Other members include Senate Republican Leader Pat Bates of Laguna Niguel; Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle of Bieber; Sens. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, and Connie Leyva, D-Chino; and Assemblywomen Eloise Reyes, D-Grand Terrace, and Marie Waldron, R-Escondido.

The Assembly is also finalizing a confidential hotline for employees to receive independent counseling and resources on sexual harassment, similar to a service the Senate announced last month, and setting up a website for anonymous suggestions on how it could improve its policies. Administrative officials have begun combing through their records, which date back to 2006, in an effort to learn how many sexual harassment complaints the Assembly has received.

“There’s a certain amount of vigilance that I think seemed to have been missing in previous generations in this building,” Rendon said.

In a statement, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, and Leyva, who lead the Legislative Women’s Caucus, tentatively praised the formation of the joint committee: “While we have a long road ahead, these actions are an important step and we look forward to working with the joint committee to help prevent future abuse, strengthen protections for victims and provide a positive path forward in the weeks and months ahead.”

Levya is behind a bill this session to ban the use of non-disclosure agreements by both private and public employers, including the Legislature, in settlements for sexual misconduct or sex discrimination. She criticized the secrecy as a way to “keep sexual predators away from the public eye and continuing to torment and hurt innocent victims.”

Other sexual harassment-related legislation introduced Wednesday includes a measure by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, to require that lawmakers foot the bill for their own settlements. Over the past two decades, taxpayers have funded more than $850,000 in payouts for at least five sexual misconduct settlements involving senators and Assembly members.

Assemblymen Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, and Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, introduced a bill requiring hotels to provide a “panic button” for employees, such as maids, who work alone in guest rooms. It would also mandate that hotels maintain a list of guests who have allegedly harassed or committed an act of violence against an employee; hotels would be required to deny service for three years to any guest on the list, if the claim has been substantiated by a statement made under penalty of perjury or some other evidence.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff