Sen. Tony Mendoza, under investigation for sexual harassment of three former employees, filed a lawsuit Thursday that asserts the Senate has treated him unfairly and violated his constitutional rights when a panel of lawmakers extended his voluntary leave of absence late last month.
“The Senate’s disparate treatment of its own members and their constituents, along with its constantly evolving and secretive investigative process is wrong and deeply troubling,” Mendoza said in a statement. “The Senate’s process and procedures for handling sexual harassment allegations remain a mystery, which unfairly impacts not only me, but also my constituents, the public, and victims of sexual harassment, who have no idea how their complaints will be handled.”
The Bee reported sexual harassment allegations against Mendoza last fall involving three former employees over the last 10 years, which prompted the Senate to hire an outside law firm to investigate the Artesia Democrat.
The Senate Rules Committee temporarily stripped Mendoza of his posts on committees, including his chairmanship of the powerful Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee, on Nov. 27, pending the outcome of the investigation.
After receiving pressure from colleagues, Mendoza reluctantly agreed to take a temporary leave of absence in early January and said he would return no later than Feb. 1. Days before Mendoza’s pledged return, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León asked the Senate to vote on a resolution that allowed the Senate Rules Committee to extend the leave of absence without his consent.
The house passed Senate Resolution 79 with a 27-9 vote. Immediately after the floor session, the five-member Rules Committee voted unanimously to extend the leave for no more than 60 days. The resolution allowed the Senate to work around Proposition 50, a voter-approved state law that requires a suspension to be supported by two-thirds of the members of the house through a vote on the floor.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday in Sacramento County Superior Court, Mendoza argues that the resolution “unconstitutionally concentrates the power” to vote on suspensions to the five-member Rules Committee. He argues that the “de facto” suspension was not supported by any findings. He said the maneuver also violated the equal protection rights of his constituent, Roger Bagne, who is also a plaintiff in the suit.
He alleges that the Senate and the Rules Committee is conducting “a secret and apparently unbounded investigation into the last decade” of his career without informing him of the charges, scope of the investigation, or standards that his conduct will be judged against.
Mendoza says comments de León, the head of the Rules Committtee, has made to reporters “demonstrate that the body charged with making decisions” is not “fair and impartial and, in fact, already pre-judged the circumstances.”
“This Kafkaesque process is the Senate’s response to the #MeToo movement,” Mendoza said. “It is an unconstitutional sleight-of-hand where attacks on one senator are used to hide other more serious allegations and offenders from public view.”
Mendoza says he was unfairly stripped of his committee posts, asked to take a leave of absence and suspended by the Rules Committee although at least one “Caucasian senator” accused of unwanted physical contact with women was not asked to do the same. Mendoza is referring to Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, who is under investigation for taking his signature bear hugs too far. Hertzberg has not been sanctioned by the Senate over the allegations, and Mendoza alleges that the approach is a violation of his equal protection rights.
The Senate Rules Committee is expected to receive a report on the results of the outside investigation on Friday. The Senate could vote to take final action against Mendoza as early as next week.
In a preemptive strike against a possible floor vote to suspend or remove him from the Senate, Mendoza also argues that Proposition 50, approved by voters in 2016, is unconstitutional. The senator is asking the court for an injunction to restore his committee posts, return his full Senate privileges, and to require the Senate to cover his attorneys fees, among other requests.
Mendoza is accused of inviting home a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his office to go over her résumé for a full-time job opening. Another employee filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging she was fired in retaliation for telling Senate officials about Mendoza’s behavior toward the fellow. Mendoza and Senate officials denied any connection between the firing and the allegation. Mendoza has called the allegations false.
Another woman, then-19-year-old intern Jennifer Kwart, said she accepted an invitation from his Assembly office to attend the 2008 state party convention and expected to join other co-workers in San Jose. Instead she found herself alone with Mendoza, who picked her up from the airport and took her to a hotel suite, where they drank alcohol from the mini-bar because she was underage. He denied the allegation.
A third woman, Haley Myers, a former Mendoza aide, complained to the Assembly in 2010 about late-night text messages and other unwanted advances from her then-boss. Mendoza has said a representative from the Assembly spoke with him and he made a strong commitment to correct any misunderstanding.
A spokesman for the pro tem’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.