Republican gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen and three other sitting lawmakers were among those named in an unprecedented release of sexual harassment investigation records disclosed Friday by California legislative leaders.
None of the four legislators – Allen; Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey; Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles; and then-Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia – were disciplined beyond a verbal warning. Hertzberg and Mendoza, who now serve in the Senate, are both currently under investigation for additional claims.
The documents, which encompassed complaints, investigative outcomes and monetary settlements, also included three former Democratic lawmakers whose cases The Sacramento Bee has previously reported: Rod Wright, Steve Fox and Raul Bocanegra.
The Democratic leaders of the Legislature committed to divulging more than a decade of reports following an October letter signed by nearly 150 women and the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus declaring their unwillingness to tolerate perpetrators or enablers in Sacramento and across state politics. Six of the 26 women currently serving in the Legislature, including Burke, and two former lawmakers joined the effort.
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The Me Too movement, which has led to men resigning their powerful posts in entertainment, politics and corporate America in recent months, is similarly forcing the traditionally male-dominated and clubby Capitol community to begin reckoning with its own culture. Two Democratic assemblymen from Los Angeles resigned last fall and Mendoza is on a leave of absence pending a probe into his alleged abuses.
Documents released to the news media on Friday, after The Bee and other outlets requested the public records, were for cases involving elected officials or “high-level” Capitol employees in which discipline was imposed or the allegations were “determined to be well-founded.” It also included settlement agreements, which the Legislature noted were “produced without regard to whether they underlying allegation was substantiated.” Other complaints not meeting that criteria were excluded from the release.
The 18 complaints range from sharing sexually explicit photos via email to unwelcome hugs to grabbing a subordinate on the butt and genitals. They include:
▪ In 2013, a staff member complained that Allen had seemed to “make a practice of being unnecessarily close to her” and it made her uncomfortable. She described a briefing where they sat next to each other and he slid his foot over to touch hers, and another incident in which he came up behind her in the cafeteria and squeezed her shoulders. She said she heard from another woman in the office that when she shook hands with Allen, he held onto her hand and “petted it.”
Jon Waldie, former chief administrator of the Assembly, spoke to Allen after the complaint was filed and “reminded him to be very conscious of his conduct.” He said Allen “could not recall a time when he might have been too familiar with staff,” but did remember two women being overly friendly with him at an event outside of work.
In a statement, Allen called it an “unsubstantiated complaint” and criticized the release as a “political attack by a Democrat-led committee,” a charge the Assembly speaker’s office denied.
“I’m sure I’ve shaken many people’s hands, tapped many people on the shoulder, and have even tapped people’s feet accidentally,” Allen said. “But there has never been anything in any of my actions that has been inappropriate, and nor will there ever be. I was actually shocked six years ago that any friendliness I displayed was in any way misconstrued. Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from inappropriate behavior.”
▪ In 2016, a staff member complained about an incident in Burke’s office that is almost entirely redacted: “Inappropriate talk was rampant,” they wrote. “Sitting outside in lobby with all staff standing around, I knew some day something was going to happen.”
The Assembly investigation found that, by Burke’s own admission, she participated in a conversation about anal sex with her staff. (Three other allegations are redacted.) “Based upon this finding, today we have discussed the inappropriateness of such conversations in the workplace,” Assembly human resources director Tosha M. Cherry wrote, “and I reiterated the need to maintain a professional environment in the office at all times consistent with Assembly policies.”
In a written statement Friday, Burke said the complaint was about an “after-hours conversation” in which one of her staff members “shared a personal story about his experiences as a young gay man.” She said the “claim was filed by a disgruntled former staff member who participated in the conversation,” but she took “full responsibility” for her part.
“As a leader, I recognize my obligation to ensure a safe and comfortable work environment for everyone in my office and I think every claim needs to be taken seriously,” she said. “However, I believed then and still believe that the complaint was motivated by the former staff member’s anger over being terminated.”
▪ The case of Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, also appears in the files. An employee complained in April 2015 that Herzberg grabbed her and began to dance with her during a conversation about paint colors in his office. The Senate described the action as “unwelcome,” and told the senator not to engage in the activity again.
Three current and former female lawmakers came forward to The Bee in December to allege that Hertzberg inappropriately hugged and touched them, including an incident that one woman contended crossed the line into what she considered assault.
The Senate provided very little detail about the complaint against Hertzberg through various documents. The documents included an email the woman wrote asking about the status of her “harassment complaint,” which she said she had someone else report to Senate human resources because she “was uncomfortable doing so.” It appears that she worked for a different legislator. The Senate released copies of handwritten notes about the case that seem to be written by an employee in human resources. Hertzberg said that the note explaining the case appeared to have been written recently.
“The integrity and timeliness of HR records is critical, and the fact that some records were written today and others were handwritten proves the point that the Legislature’s HR practices are problematic,” Hertzberg said. “I remain committed to working on solutions that will instill faith in the Capitol as a safe and accountable workplace for all.”
▪ Haley Myers, whose name is redacted in the Assembly documents, complained to the Assembly in 2010 that Sen. Tony Mendoza treated her differently and “cited frequent text messages with no business correlation,” as previously reported by The Bee. She complained about invitations to one-one-one lunches, dinners and drinks and hugs, according to the Assembly.
She reported that she was afraid to say no and was uncomfortable and in fear of losing her job. Lynda Roper, the deputy administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee, met with Mendoza and advised him to only text her for business purposes and not to hug subordinates. Roper told Mendoza not to retaliate against Meyers, not raise the matter with her and move forward in a professional way.
▪ In November 2009, then-Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt wrote to then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that a staff member had “made some serious allegations regarding behavior in the office that involve” Wright and “refuses to go back there” in his presence. The rest of the complaint is redacted. A letter from Steinberg to Wright the following April about the results of the investigation mentions claims that Wright and members of his Capitol staff “engaged in coarse and vulgar language including words and phrases that need not be repeated in this letter.” It also refers to two “entertainment videos” that were shown in the office to staff and lobbyists, and “one isolated incident of an angry work related reprimand which included profanity.”
Steinberg wrote that the investigation did not find that Wright’s conduct “constituted harassment of this employee as that term is defined by law,” but did conclude that it “violated the Senate’s strict policies and practices concerning respectful behavior.” After giving Wright “lasting credit” for not denying the allegations, Steinberg said the letter should be regarded as a “sternly worded admonishment” and a “direct instruction” to “avoid any such language and behavior in the future and to assure that your staff does the same.”
The Wright incident, as has been previously reported, resulted in a lawsuit and $120,000 settlement for the staff member, Fahizah Alim. In addition to dropping her lawsuit, Alim agreed to a “no publicity” clause and has repeatedly declined to discuss the settlement.
Reached Friday, Wright stressed that his case was all about language and did not in any way involve demands for sex, sexual innuendo, inappropriate touching or coercion.
“That did not occur,” he said.
He described himself as a “spoken-word artist” who enjoyed listening to and reciting poetry, which often reflected the challenges of African American life. Some of the poetry language was raw, he said, noting that he is “more mindful of language” when speaking at church or before elementary school children.
“If I’m going to go down for the spoken word – poetry – hell, shoot me now,” he said.
Wright said he had “issues related to work (with Alim), and it manifest itself this way.”
He said he had no hand in the settlement: “I wasn’t a party to the settlement,” he said. “No one asked me. That was something they decided apart from me.”
▪ One Assembly aide was the subject of two separate complaints eight years apart. In 2007, an individual complained that William Scott Rossow “inappropriately touched her by giving her shoulders a hug, kissing her hand, and kissing her on the top of her head.” Rossow was warned that he had violated the Assembly’s “zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment” and was directed to participate in an individual counseling and training session. Any future violation, he was warned, would result in his termination.
Then in August 2015, another woman accused Rossow, a senior consultant for the Democratic Caucus, of putting his hand on her butt while they hugged, moving his hand toward her inner thigh and touching her vaginal area. She said he held her close so that she could not leave. The Assembly determined that the incident, more likely than not, did occur, citing Rossow’s contradictory statements and witnesses who said they had seen him place his hand on the woman’s butt while they hugged several times before.
In a letter firing Rossow, Assembly chief administrator Debra Gravert said the investigation had uncovered other occasions where his behavior “failed to meet the professional expectations the Assembly holds for its supervisors”: getting overly involved in the complainant’s personal life, offering to bring barbeque to her home, inviting her on a trip to Alaska, and receiving a picture of her in a bikini that he forwarded to his personal and Assembly email accounts on three occasions “just to have it ... to save it.”
▪ Anthony Zamarron, the former chief of staff for Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, came under scrutiny in August 2013 after complaints were filed about his alleged inappropriate comments, according to two memos from Roper.
Zamarron allegedly “talks about his weekend and people he’s slept with,” one memo stated. The memo said Zamarron would make comments to a female visitor from another office who would drop things off and, when she left, would say things like: “That may or may not have been awkward. She may have seen me naked.”
In a separate memo, Roper stated that Zamarron “understood some of the concerns” but denied making some comments and felt others were taken out of context. “Some of the statements you do not recall having made were reported to me by more than one person,” Roper wrote. She told Zamarron the Assembly has high expectations for professionalism in the workplace and “does not tolerate retaliation.”
▪ A female staff member who was district coordinator in 2009 for then-Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, was fired after admitting to sending sexually explicit emails and talking about sex at work, according to a March 24, 2009, letter from the Assembly Rules Committee. In the letter, Elizabeth Nan Rider was informed she was being terminated, effective the following day, because the committee had “lost confidence in your professional judgment and ability to continue to serve.”
In the investigation, a human resources consultant found that Rider made sexually explicit comments and jokes and talked at work about her own sex life and that of others, including current and former subordinates.
▪ Steve Davey, former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, left the job in 2016 after complaints about unwanted advances landed him on administrative leave.
In two cases, according to the complaints, Davey put his arm around unnamed people. One incident occurred at a grocery store in Truckee, the other at the California International Marathon, according to the complaints. One complaint asserted that Gaines did not know about the allegations of physical touching but had been told about Davey’s “demeaning attitude and shouting.”
The complaint said Gaines discussed the issue with Davey. The Rules Committee document said Davey was placed on administrative leave Dec. 21, 2015 – 10 days after the complaint came in – and he resigned on Feb. 8, 2016, Senate officials said.
▪ The Senate suspended for two weeks without pay Rod Grossman, director of information technology, in 2015. The move came after an investigation found that a female Senate employee refused to work with him because of unwanted touching during a group photo in 2014. The document from the Senate Rules Committee said the woman complained loudly that he had touched her shoulder during the photo shoot.
The document also detailed a complaint from a woman that Grossman made “inappropriate comments” about the way she was dressed. “Your comments to (the woman) were inappropriate and presented an unprofessional image to those who had to witness it,” the reprimand said. The letter warned that another incident would result in his firing.
▪ Joe Giardiello, the former district director for then Sen. Tom McClintock, was the focus of a $70,000 settlement reached in 2009 with a female staff member for McClintock – one of two complaints lodged against Giardiello in the newly released documents. The settlement does not name Giardiello, or describe the woman’s complaint, but Senate officials on Friday confirmed that the agreement involved Giardiello’s conduct. The agreement, dated June 3, 2009, specified that both parties must keep the settlement and its terms confidential. The woman agreed not to seek or accept future employment with the Senate.
Two years earlier, Giardiello was the topic of a critical letter mailed anonymously to the Ventura County Republican Party. The writer, who signed the March 27, 2007, letter as a “Concerned and Dedicated Republican,” said he or she had been a former intern in McClintock’s district office in Thousand Oaks and found that Giardiello’s behavior was “erratic... He would yell and make very inappropriate comments to his staff.” The writer claimed to have witnessed “inappropriate sexual remarks and offensive sexual jokes made at the expense of constituents and coworkers.”
The letter writer noted that, overall, the experience in the Thousand Oaks office had been a “positive one.” A Senate personnel document shows that Giardiello terminated his employment on Aug. 31, 2007. Giardiello died in December 2015 at his home in Colorado. He was 50.
▪ In March 2017, the Assembly fired Samuel “Joey” Hill, chief of staff to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, for “making several inappropriate gender and sexual preference based comments,” including derogatory comments about women and an “elected official’s sexual orientation,” according to a letter from the Assembly Rules Committee. The letter noted that Hill had denied making several comments, but that many were corroborated by several witnesses.
Hill said in an interview that he was not fired; rather, he was given a choice to resign or be fired, so he resigned. He also dismissed the complaint as the invention of a “disgruntled employee” who was trying to avoid being fired herself.
“The allegations were false. The process was flawed. No one was under oath, nor was I told whom I was supposed to have said these things to,” Hill said. “I have 29 years at the Assembly that I am very proud of.”
Repercussions of the unfolding sexual misconduct allegations led to the resignations last fall of Assembly Democrats Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh.
Bocanegra was the first sitting lawmaker to resign as the “We Said Enough” movement gained steam. Seven women, including several who worked under him when he was a Capitol chief of staff, said he groped or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward them. Bocanegra denied most of the allegations, but he said the opportunity for due process had been “lost in a hurricane of political opportunism among the self-righteous.”
As The Bee reported last fall, Bocanegra was investigated and disciplined in 2009 for groping another legislative staffer at an event after work at a downtown Sacramento nightclub. The new documents reveal that he also complained at the time that the allegations might be “politically motivated,” and that he was suspended for three days without pay and ordered to participate in in individual counseling and training.
In one of the most high-profile cases, which was not part of the material released Friday, lobbyist Pamela Lopez accused Dababneh of pushing her into a bathroom at a Las Vegas hotel and masturbating in front of her. Four other women said Dababneh made unwanted sexual advances and crude remarks to them while they worked for him. He denied the allegations, but resigned in December, he said, to focus on clearing his name.
In a statement, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said the California Capitol must be a safe environment for those who work and conduct business there. De León said officials have taken several steps to build confidence in how the Senate investigates and staff reports sexual harassment allegations.
“With the release of these documents, the Senate and Assembly are united in declaring sexual harassment in the Capitol will not be tolerated and will be met with severe consequences,” de León said.
On Twitter, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said the release was “a step in the right direction,” but “the Legislature needs to do a better job making sure everyone in the Capitol community feels safe in their jobs & safe coming forward with complaints.”
Still, organizers of last October’s “We Said Enough” letter called it a “selective release of data” that will “further erode the trust that so many victims and survivors hope to rebuild.”
“This release presented an opportunity towards re-gaining the trust of the public and of those who work in the Capitol community,” the statement said. “However, this effort falls dramatically short of a comprehensive or transparent release of information.”
Women have expressed concerns about a prior lack of transparency in the aftermath of their complaints.
When the Legislature returned in early January, de León and Rendon announced a joint committee to examine procedures for processing sexual complaints. The move was viewed by some as a way to staunch persistent criticism generated by separate handling of human resources complaints.
On Thursday, a Republican measure designed to provide whistleblower protections to those working in the Legislature, which for four years was scuttled by Senate Democrats, passed the body.
Assembly Bill 403, with more than half of state lawmakers added as co-authors, cleared the Senate by unanimous vote. Earlier iterations of the legislation quietly died in the Senate Appropriations Committee before the sexual harassment allegations upended the Capitol.