Capitol Alert

Bail advocate pushes harassment claims against ‘Huggy Bear Hertzberg’

Sen. Bob Hertzberg made a political enemy of the bail industry last year when he introduced legislation to overhaul the money bail system in California. Now a Bakersfield man tied to the industry has launched a victims’ hotline and video featuring allegations that the Los Angeles Democrat inappropriately touched women.

T.J. Esposito, the owner of Bail Bond 360 and a marketing agent for his wife’s company Patriot Bail Bonds, denied his effort urging harassment victims to come forward is connected to the bail issue at the Capitol. But Hertzberg said certain elements of the cash bail system are attempting to “weaponize and exploit the #wesaidenough movement in an effort to kill bail reform.”

Esposito said a grass-roots group of citizens paid him to set up the “Sacramento Victims Hotline” website and create the video in December – just days after Hertzberg faced allegations from three women of inappropriately hugging and touching. He said some of his clients are victims of sexual harassment or abuse and requested that his marketing and business consulting agency, Blue Sky Media, conceal their identities.

Esposito, who previously discussed his own domestic violence arrest during a failed Bakersfield mayoral campaign, described his work as a public awareness campaign. He said he specializes in political advertising and nonprofit outreach for clients in many different industries.

The victims “are scared of retaliation and nervous that those leaders and their interests are going to put pressure on them,” Esposito said. “This is not a political attack. It highlights people who are under investigation for sexual harassment and tells people how to find resources.”

Hertzberg has become a target on social media for his work on bail reform. “They have put up phony websites fronting as victims’ groups, but they’re really trolling for stories about lawmakers and staff who are supportive of bail reform,” Hertzberg said in a statement.

A Facebook page for the hotline includes a video prominently featuring images of Hertzberg, known around the Capitol as “Huggy Bear,” embracing women, as well as pictures of three other lawmakers who have been accused of harassment or assault.

“Have you been inappropriately touched by ‘Huggy Bear’ Hertzberg?” reads the headline of a newspaper mock up that appears in the first scene of the video. “Come forward now.”

Esposito said the video featured Hertzberg because he is the most recent lawmaker to be accused of wrongdoing.

The website asks victims to provide their email addresses in a box under the words: “Have you been wronged? Speak up and have your voice heard.”

One woman, who declined to be identified, entered her email address. She received an automated response from Esposito’s email account, which she forwarded to The Bee.

Esposito said anyone who gives the group an email address will receive a monthly newsletter with resources on how to report sexual harassment or assault. He said the website does not provide a function for women to tell their stories and organizers have not contacted anyone who signed up.

“We are not taking anyone’s names,” Esposito said. “We are not taking anyone’s phone numbers. All we’re doing is creating a list and providing resources so victims can speak out. There is no scandal.”

An example of a newsletter provided by Esposito advises women to report harassment in writing, described as a victim’s “best piece of evidence,” to human resources at their company or talk to a superior. The newsletter tells victims they can report a complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the federal Equal Opportunity Commission, and includes phone numbers for the Sacramento Police Department, Weave Inc. and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The website does not disclose any connection to Blue Sky Media or the anonymous group that Esposito said funded the campaign.

Former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Republican from Fresno who served one term from 2010 to 2012, said she felt “disgusted” by the attempt to politicize her experience. Halderman went public with an allegation against Hertzberg in December.

“Legitimate victims have a hard enough time without being put in the middle of some sort of legislative battle,” Halderman said. “It’s a little upsetting to me, and I have no involvement.”

Halderman said last month that she previously told Hertzberg she was uncomfortable with his hugs after a couple of embraces lingered longer than appropriate. Instead of backing off, she said he went in for an embrace anyway, grabbing her tightly with one hand on her lower back and thrusting his groin into her. She said she felt “violated.”

Hertzberg has not disputed the allegation. After Halderman spoke out, two sitting legislators said Hertzberg’s hugs crossed a line for them, too.

“This is not about her,” said Esposito, describing himself as an advocate for victims. “This is not about Hertzberg. This is not about the bail industry. This is about victims of sexual abuse.”

Esposito said it’s become his ambition to help people and repay his debt to society.

Adama Iwu, the leader of a women’s movement to call out sexual harassment at the Capitol, questioned how a monthly newsletter would benefit anyone seeking immediate help for sexual harassment.

Iwu and more than 140 other women signed a “We Said Enough” letter drawing attention to an abuse of power in Sacramento in October. She said it appears that Esposito is taking advantage of the situation “for some kind of political gain.”

She and others have repeatedly asked the California Legislature to establish a singular process for women to report allegations, which she said would help women find legitimate resources.

“It wouldn’t be that easy for someone to put up a website with a name that sounds like it’s there for victim outreach,” Iwu said. “If we had a process in place you wouldn’t have something like this that could step in that vacuum.”

David Quintana, a lobbyist for the California Bail Agents Association, said the association had no ties to the website or video.

“We believe that this has no place in the legitimate discourse over policy,” Quintana said. “It’s inappropriate. We have disagreements with Sen. Hertzberg over policy and we’d like to keep it to policy.”

Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who served as Assembly speaker from 2000 to 2002 and was elected to the Senate in 2014 after a break from the Legislature, has long had a reputation for being physically affectionate. A pin he distributed at the 2000 California Democratic convention read, “I was hugged by Assemblymember Bob Hertzberg.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. Jan. 18, 2018 to clarify that the website does not provide a function for women to tell their stories.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

Related stories from Sacramento Bee