Capitol Alert

Six women were likely subject to unwanted behavior by a California senator, investigation finds

A California Senate investigation found that Sen. Tony Mendoza likely engaged in “unwanted flirtatious or sexually suggestive behavior” toward six women, a panel of lawmakers announced Tuesday.

The Bee reported sexual misconduct and harassment allegations against Mendoza last fall involving three former employees over the last 10 years. The Senate responded in November with a new policy to hire outside law firms to investigate the allegations against Mendoza and all future sexual abuse, assault and harassment complaints.

The Senate investigation, which wrapped up Feb. 15, found that four of the six women were working for Mendoza as staff members, interns or fellows at the time of the behavior, according a four-page summary of the findings.

The law firms, Gibson Dunn and Van Dermyden Maddux, concluded “it is more likely than not” that Mendoza engaged in flirtatious and sexually suggestive behavior with a female staff member in 2007, offered and drank alcohol with a 19-year-old intern in 2008, made unwanted advances on a staff member in 2010 and toward a Senate fellow in 2017. The law firms also reported that in 2015 he “more likely than not” engaged in sexually suggestive behavior with a lobbyist and flirtatious behavior toward another fellow.

The law firms said they conducted 51 interviews with 47 witnesses over two months. Full records relating to the investigation have not been made public.

The announcement came after the five-member Senate Rules Committee held closed door meetings to go over the results of the investigation and discuss possible actions to take against Mendoza.

Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine and the Senate’s outside employment lawyer, Heather Irwin, presented the results of the investigation to the Senate Rules Committee in a closed session on Friday. The committee met again in private early in the day Tuesday.

Now it’s left up to senators to decide the appropriate consequence for their colleague. The Legislature continues to remain under intense public scrutiny since the “Me Too” movement rocked the California Capitol last year. The Senate could vote to censure, suspend, expel or otherwise sanction Mendoza in light of the investigation.

The Democratic and Republican caucuses will meet Wednesday to discuss the results of the investigation and potential punishment. Mendoza, who is currently on paid leave, will be allowed to speak in his own defense before senators take any action against him through a floor vote, which could happen as early as Thursday.

The Bee reported that multiple sources alleged that Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his office and twice invited her to his home to go over her resume for a full-time position last year.

Adriana Ruelas, Mendoza’s legislative director at the time, filed a complaint with the state in early January alleging that Mendoza fired her in retaliation for reporting his alleged behavior to Senate officials. Two other employees with knowledge of the situation, Mendoza’s chief-of-staff Eusevillo Padilla and scheduler Stacey Brown, were also fired.

The Senate denies that the workers were fired in retaliation for coming forward and said no complaints were made until the day they were fired on Sept. 22. Ruelas said in the complaint that Padilla told her he had been reporting Mendoza’s “sexually inappropriate behavior” toward the fellow since February.

The investigation found “that it is more likely than not” that Mendoza “engaged in unwanted flirtatious and sexually suggestive behavior” with the Senate fellow, which included asking her personal questions, suggestions that they could go to a dinner, a movie or take vacation together and suggesting she rent a room in his house.

The investigation concluded that Mendoza likely suggested “they could have just reserved one room” together for an overnight work event. The report also says that he likely invited “the Fellow to come to his home under the guise of reviewing resumes of candidates for a full time legislative position for which she was an applicant, when he had little intention of hiring her for the position.”

The lawyers reiterated the Senate’s position that sexual harassment issues had not come to the attention of Mendoza or Senate Human Resources until the day the three staff members were fired.

“We found that it is more likely than not that the three staff members terminated on September 22, 2017 were terminated for reasons unrelated to any complaint of sexual harassment,” the lawyers said in the report.

Hours after The Bee published the story involving the fellow, a second woman came forward and alleged that Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward her when she attended the 2008 California Democratic Party state convention at the invitation of his district office.

Jennifer Kwart, then 19, alleges that Mendoza picked her up from the airport alone and drove her back to the hotel suite with an adjoining room. Too young to drink legally at the hotel bar, Kwart said Mendoza suggested they drink from the mini-bar in the common area of the suite. She said he made her feel uncomfortable with questions about her ex-boyfriends, taste in men and her personal life. On the elevator on their way to convention in the late afternoon, she said he told her he didn’t want to spend too much time at the convention that evening because “then we won’t have time for anything else.”

“I interpreted that to mean this guy thinks I’m going to have sex with him,” Kwart said at the time. She faked a family emergency and booked an early flight home for the next morning.

Mendoza previously called Kwart’s allegations “completely false,” but lawyers for the Senate found that it was “more likely than not” that he “offered and subsequently had alcoholic drinks with the intern in the hotel suite” and “engaged in unwanted flirtatious and sexually suggestive conversation with the intern, including asking her questions regarding her dating life.”

The stories prompted the Senate to adopt a new policy to hire outside law firms to investigate all future sexual harassment complaints, which were previously probed by Rules Committee employees, on Nov. 13. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León moved out of the Sacramento house he shared with Mendoza that weekend.

A third woman, Haley Myers, came forward days later and 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.

The Assembly released details on Myers’ complaint, with her name redacted, earlier this month in a document dump of substantiated sexual harassment allegations made against lawmakers and senior staff over the last decade. The documents confirmed that she complained to the Assembly in 2010 that Sen. Tony Mendoza treated her differently and “cited frequent text messages with no business correlation.” She complained about invitations to one-one-one lunches, dinners and drinks and hugs, according to the Assembly.

Myers told the Assembly that Mendoza made her feel uncomfortable and she was afraid to say no in fear of losing her job. An official with the Assembly Rules Committee met with Mendoza and advised him to only text her for business purposes, not to hug subordinates, not to retaliate against Myers, not raise the matter with her and move forward in a professional way. In response, Mendoza said he “made a strong commitment to correct any misunderstanding and reinforce my commitment to ensuring a friendly and professional atmosphere.”

The Senate investigation found that “it is more likely than not” Mendoza engaged in unwanted flirtatious and sexually suggestive behavior with Myers, without saying her name. The Senate said he repeatedly invited her to dinner or drinks and kissed “her on the cheek after driving her to her house.”

Investigators also revealed three new allegations against Mendoza.

The lawyers said it was likely that Mendoza invited a female staff member to share a room with him at an event in Hawaii in 2007 when he was in the Assembly. The staff member asked Mendoza to “stop engaging in behavior suggestive of wanting a sexual relationship and he subsequently conformed his behavior,” according to the lawyers.

In another instance, Mendoza engaged in “flirtatious behavior” toward a different fellow working in another legislator’s office in 2015. Similarly to the recent case involving a Senate fellow, Mendoza also likely invited the fellow to visit him at home.

The lawyers also reported that he engaged in “unwanted flirtatious and sexually suggestive behavior with a lobbyist, including taking her out to dinner and asking about what type of guys she likes” in 2015.

When asked what she thinks would be appropriate punishment, Kwart noted Tuesday that it isn’t up to her to decide the consequences Mendoza should face for his actions.

“However, it is my hope that the Senate takes what happened to me and to other women very seriously,” Kwart said. “If not, I hope the voters in his district will.”

The allegations may cause problems for Mendoza’s re-election bid this year. Democrat Vicky Santana announced her intention to take on Mendoza for the southeast Los Angeles County Senate seat last week. Mendoza ended 2017 with more than $650,000 in his campaign account.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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