Senate asks Tony Mendoza to take leave of absence pending harassment investigation
While insisting that no one has suggested he engaged in “inappropriate bodily contact,” California state Sen. Tony Mendoza agreed to temporarily step down with pay Wednesday night amid pressure from lawmakers over sexual harassment allegations against the Artesia Democrat.
“I will take my leave now until the end of the month, unless the investigation concludes sooner, which I hope it will,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza announced his decision to step down until Feb. 1 during the Senate floor session in light of allegations reported in The Bee that he made unwanted advances toward three female subordinates working in his Capitol and district offices over the last decade.
After a nearly four-month recess, the legislators returned Wednesday to a Capitol steeped in controversy since the “Me Too” movement spread to state politics in October, forcing two Assembly members to resign. Mendoza previously refused to comply with a request in December from Senate Leader Kevin de Leòn to step down on his own as a law firm probes the allegations.
Before the Senate floor session began, Mendoza released a statement calling actions to sanction him “premature” until lawyers hired by the Senate conclude their investigation and “clear my name.”
“The allegations against me, as far as I know, do not involve any form of touching or even suggest inappropriate bodily contact,” Mendoza said. “Unlike others, I have been accused at most of allegedly making someone ‘feel’ uncomfortable.”
Democratic senators met privately, halting the first floor session of the year for more than four hours Wednesday, attempting to convince Mendoza to step down. The discussion included a vote that indicated members could remove him if he did not agree to leave voluntarily.
Adriana Ruelas, a longtime Capitol employee and Mendoza’s former legislative director, filed a complaint with the state alleging that the senator fired her and two others in September after they complained to superiors and human resources workers that Mendoza sexually harassed a 23-year-old woman in his Capitol office.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León previously said that no complaints about Mendoza’s behavior toward the fellow were made to human resources until the day the three employees were let go. Mendoza has said he was unaware of the allegations involving the fellow until after he fired Ruelas and two other employees.
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, Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, crafted a resolution to permanently remove Mendoza from office. Lawmakers in both parties expressed reservations about ending Mendoza’s Senate career before the investigation concluded.
“After four hours of horse trading in the Senate Democrat caucus, the only thing that Californians get is Mendoza agreeing to take a vacation? That’s it? All too typical for the mighty California State Senate these days,” Vidak said in a statement.
The Senate Rules Committee temporarily stripped Mendoza of his chairmanship of the powerful Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee and took away his appointments on other boards and commissions in a vote in late November.
Since then, Mendoza has repeatedly criticized the legislative process to investigate allegations against lawmakers as unfair.
“The question of how both houses have handled this extremely serious issue has placed both the person affected by the harassment, and the person accused of the harassment in a dark place with secret investigations, poor record-keeping, lack of information, inconsistent treatment, secret settlements and an atmosphere of suspicion, doubt and unfairness,” he said in a statement sent Tuesday.
Mendoza 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.” The pro tem’s office responded with a letter from California State Auditor Elaine Howle citing state law that prohibits her office from auditing the Legislature.
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.
The two houses 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.
Sexual harassment-related legislation introduced Wednesday included 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.