Sexual harassment cases at the California Capitol
Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, could become the first lawmaker expelled from the state Legislature in over a century on Thursday.
The California Senate is poised to take unprecedented action against Mendoza days after leaders of the house publicly released the findings of an investigation that determined he likely engaged in a pattern of unwanted advances and sexually suggestive behavior toward six women, including four subordinates, over the last decade.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León on Wednesday introduced Senate Resolution 85, which cites the house’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy and the results of the investigation as grounds to expel Mendoza. A Senate official confirmed that the resolution, which requires support from two-thirds of the house, is expected to come up for a vote during the floor session on Thursday.
Senate Republicans and Democrats have spent days meeting with lawyers and talking privately to determine the most appropriate response to the investigation. Other than expulsion, the Senate could censure or suspend Mendoza.
No lawmaker has ever been suspended or expelled for sexual harassment in California state history, according to Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library. If the Senate expels Mendoza, it would mark the first time either house has rejected a member since 1905 when four lawmakers were permanently removed from office for accepting bribes.
“These are extraordinary times,” Vassar said. “The expulsion of a legislator for sexual harassment allegations is unprecedented in California history.”
The Senate last suspended one of its own in 2014, when Sens. Rod Wright, Ron Calderon and Leland Yee were removed from duty over voter fraud, corruption or conspiracy to traffic firearms charges.
The Senate and Assembly have been navigating through uncharted territory since the “Me Too” movement last year raised questions about the Legislature’s secretive process to resolve sexual harassment reports against lawmakers and staff members.
In an effort to address a perceived lack of transparency, both houses earlier this month released heavily redacted records of substantiated sexual harassment claims against state legislators and senior staff members over the last 10 years. None of the four sitting legislators named in the files – Mendoza; Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach; Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey and Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles – were disciplined beyond a verbal warning.
Neither house had detailed policies that articulated a scale to determine how different offenses should be treated. Each incident was dealt with on a case-by-case basis by human resources employees or investigated by outside law firms.
A bi-partisan panel of legislators is now developing sexual harassment polices that would apply to both houses. Until that process concludes, each house must decide the appropriate recourse for the accused.
Any action to expel legislators is rare, at least in part, because most step down on their own before it goes that far.
Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, both Democrats from Los Angeles, resigned from office in light of sexual harassment and assault allegations against them last year. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, accused of groping a legislative employee, immediately took a leave of absence this year until her investigation concludes.
Mendoza has refused to go away without a fight. He publicly criticized the Senate’s response to the case and filed a lawsuit against the house. He also initially declined de León’s request to take a voluntary leave of absence in December. He later complied with demands from his caucus to temporarily step down when the Legislature returned to Sacramento after winter break.
Before his pledged return on Feb. 1, the Senate adopted a new rule that allowed the Rules Committee to extend Mendoza’s leave of absence for 60 days without his consent. Despite his leave, Mendoza hosted a boat tour for high school students and advertised for spring interns.
The Bee reported sexual misconduct and harassment allegations against Mendoza last fall involving three former employees over the last 10 years. The Senate responded by hiring two law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Van Dermyden Maddux, to investigate the allegations against Mendoza and all future complaints involving lawmakers and staff members.
The investigation, which wrapped up last week, concluded that Mendoza “more likely than not” engaged in “unwanted flirtatious or sexually suggestive behavior” toward six women since 2007. Investigators found that Mendoza likely drank alcohol with a 19-year-old intern in his hotel suite in 2008 and last year invited a Senate 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,” among other conclusions.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said expulsion should be considered the “nuclear option” for the Senate and cautioned against any move to score points with the “Me Too” movement.
“On the one hand, it sends the message that we take these allegations seriously, so seriously that we are using the most power we have to expel one of our colleagues from office,” Levinson said. “You’re also talking about overturning the majority of voters. That needs to be a sacred thing that you treat with a lot of respect.”
Levinson said this may be one of the few cases that warrants such extreme action.
“It seems to me that these are extremely credible allegations, they’ve been corroborated and they do transcend the balance of decency,” she said.
Ousting Mendoza could also have political ramifications.
Mendoza is running for re-election in a relatively safe Democratic district and currently has $650,000 in his campaign account. Senate Democrats could either help a challenger defeat Mendoza or risk the possibility that he rejoins the house in November.
“Leland Yee, who was indicted on charges of arms trading, came in third in the race for California Secretary of State because of his name and ballot title,” Levinson said. “I mean third. That’s a real concern.”
Action against Mendoza could potentially signal similar sanctions for Hertzberg.
Two current lawmakers and one former assemblywoman told The Bee last year that his embraces were too long and overly intimate for their comfort. Two of them said they expressed concerns to Hertzberg and he continued to hug them again anyway.
One of the women, former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, alleged that he grabbed her, pinned her in his arms with one hand on her lower back and then thrust his groin into her after she told him she wasn’t a hugger.
Mendoza has repeatedly questioned why Hertzberg, whom he referred to as a certain “Caucasian” legislator, has not been subject to the same scrutiny despite allegations that he physically touched women. The Senate has not disciplined Hertzberg at all or asked him to take a leave of absence.