Video omits sexual harassment question
Rep. Brad Sherman’s town hall in Reseda last month lasted more than an hour, as the Los Angeles Democrat updated constituents via Skype about Congress’ battle over government funding.
His response to one particular question from the audience, however, didn’t make the final cut of the video the congressman’s office posted on his official YouTube page – regarding a sexual harassment scandal involving a former senior aide that has rocked his office.
“Your new office policy regarding sexual harassment in the wake of the Matt Dababneh scandal is really lacking,” Debby Pearlman, a constituent from Encino said, referring to the former state assemblyman and longtime head of Sherman’s district office, who has been accused of assault and harassment. “Having your junior staff reporting to your senior staff of the same gender – wouldn’t it be more effective and wouldn’t you want to know, and have the people report to you directly?”
Sherman, who was projected on a big screen at the town hall from his office in Washington, D.C., responded calmly. “We have five different ways to report sexual harassment in my office,” he said. “One among those is to talk to me personally. And I talk to each staff member several times a year about the office policy.”
“We have in each office a poster indicating how to bring matters to the attention of the office of Compliance and that is run by the House of Representatives and is an advocate, although their policies were not as good as they should be,” Sherman continued. “In addition to all of that, we are having senior staffers of the same gender speak to each member of the staff.” He went on to discuss why bringing in an outside counsel to meet with employees about possible harassment would not be cost-efficient.
It was a straightforward exchange, about an issue that has been at the forefront of American politics and cultural discussion. Nowhere has that been more true than in Sherman’s backyard – his district bisects Hollywood and North Hollywood and includes film industry hubs like Studio City and Universal City. Without the film industry and its revelations about mega-producer Harvey Weinstein’s mistreatment of women, there would be no #MeToo movement.
But if sexual harassment is a pressing matter for some Sherman constituents, it’s also a sensitive issue for the congressman. Dababneh worked for the San Fernando Valley Democrat for more than eight years, including four-and-a-half as director of his district office. During that time, two women have alleged Dababneh harassed them while working for the congressman – one a fellow district staffer and one a campaign intern. And more than half a dozen staffers told The Bee in December that an abusive environment in Sherman’s offices discouraged low-level staff from coming forward with workplace concerns –like harassment.
The congressman told the Los Angeles Times in December that he had a strong anti-harassment policy. He recently updated it, however, the Times reports. As of January, senior staffers in Sherman’s office will ask junior staffers “a list of questions every six months in order to determine whether staffers saw or experienced anything that made them uncomfortable.” Sherman told the Times “there’s no way I would tolerate anything.”
That new policy is what Pearlman asked about. She provided a video of the exchange to The Bee after discovering it had been edited out of the town hall video the congressman’s office posted on YouTube. She said her son, a college student in Washington, D.C., first discovered she was missing from the official footage online, and called Sherman’s D.C. office to ask why the segment had been removed. Her son, Brian, said the man who answered the phone told him the town hall video “had not been edited in any way.”
Sherman’s office denies that happened. Communications Director Shane Seaver said the intern who answered the phone told the caller he didn’t know which questions had been included in the video. According to Seaver, the 51-minute video posted to YouTube entitled “Congressman Sherman Hosts a Valley Town Hall Via Skype,” was, in fact, a “highlight reel” that had been edited down from over two hours of footage.
At The Bee’s request, Seaver provided the full video, which included lengthy presentations by local officials as well as the question-and-answer session with Sherman. The local officials were, indeed, deleted from the version posted on YouTube. But only one other question besides Pearlman’s was edited out – from a woman who accused Sherman of underpaying his property taxes (which he denied).
Seaver said the decision to cut Pearlman’s question out of the public video was due to the fact that she is “working for an opposing candidate.”
“I excluded all questions asked by a questioner working with an opponent’s campaign if the questioner failed to disclose that fact in their question,” he said via e-mail. “After all it is our Highlight Reel, and if it fails to include such information, it’s misleading.”
Pearlman acknowledges she is supporting Jon Pelzer, who is challenging Sherman from the left in his heavily Democratic district in the San Fernando Valley. Pelzer’s campaign has reimbursed Pearlman nearly $1,600 for event supplies and other purchases she has made for Pelzer campaign events, but she is not a paid employee.
Pelzer does not appear to be a real threat to Sherman’s re-election. The incumbent has been in office since 1996 and has $1.7 million in campaign cash on hand. Pelzer, on the other hand, has only a few thousand dollars in his campaign account, once his debts are factored in.
Pearlman said she has voted for Sherman in the past – they are members of the same Jewish Temple. But she does not regard him as a “real progressive Democrat.” Among other things, she said she and another woman had been following the news about Dababneh, their local assemblyman, and were alarmed about how the congressman responded.
“Putting up posters... is the bare minimum,” Pearlman said.
Dababneh left Sherman’s office to run for California Assembly in 2014. He was was forced to resign his Assembly seat late last year after a Sacramento lobbyist, Pamela Lopez, alleged he had pushed her into a Las Vegas bathroom and masturbated in front of her in 2016. Lopez was joined at the December press event by former Sherman staffer Jessica Yas Barker, who accused Dababneh of repeatedly making lewd and suggestive remarks when he was her boss in Sherman’s district office.
“It definitely felt like an environment where this was just the way things were,” Barker later told The Bee of Sherman’s district office. “I did not feel there was any channel by which I could report things.”
Two other women also told the Los Angeles Times in December that Dababneh exposed himself and/or sexually assaulted them. He has denied the accusations.