Capitol Alert

Hugging banned for California lawmaker after harassment investigation

Robert Hertzberg, gives Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a hug as Assemblyman John A. Perez prepares to be sworn in as the 68th speaker on Monday, March 1, 2010 at the Capitol.
Robert Hertzberg, gives Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a hug as Assemblyman John A. Perez prepares to be sworn in as the 68th speaker on Monday, March 1, 2010 at the Capitol.

The California Senate has reprimanded Sen. Bob Hertzberg and told him to stop initiating his trademark hugs after an investigation determined that his behavior made two female legislators and a male sergeant-at-arms uncomfortable.

"You cannot solve the problem by asking someone if a hug is unwelcome or welcome because a person may not feel comfortable telling you it is unwelcome," the Senate Rules Committee wrote to Hertzberg in a letter released Thursday. "Any further similar behavior will result in the Rules Committee recommending more severe discipline."

The Senate launched an investigation into Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, after former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman alleged in mid-December that he pinned her in his arms and thrust his groin into her, describing the encounter in a Capitol hallway shortly after she was elected in 2010 as an assault. Two sitting lawmakers came forward and said Hertzberg's hugs crossed a line for them, too.

Halderman declined to meet with the lawyers the Senate hired to investigate. They ultimately concluded that Hertzberg likely hugged Halderman on one occasion, but did not substantiate complaints that he hugged her multiple times in an unwanted manner, even after she asked him to stop.

The investigation did confirm that Hertzberg intimately hugged an unnamed female senator the day she was sworn into the upper house in 2014, but he did not repeat the behavior after she told him to stop, and that his embraces crossed a line for another woman lawmaker the following year.

It also determined that a new allegation – that Hertzberg in 2016 backed into a male sergeant-at-arms and grinded against him in a manner that was "unwelcome and offensive" to him – was likely true.

It is the third time that the Senate has counseled Hertzberg about unwanted touching, according to the investigation, which noted that Hertzberg was skeptical of those prior complaints and "missed opportunities to understand that some people were genuinely troubled by his hugging."

The Rules Committee resolved the investigation with a reprimand and an order "not to initiate hugs," however, because of "mitigating factors, such as the fact that the majority of your hugs are not unwelcome, the motivation is not sexual in nature, you were not given sufficient details regarding past complaints (which may have made you change your behavior) and you expressed remorse."

In a statement, Hertzberg noted that Halderman's claim was not supported after "two months of thorough investigation."

"Even so, I understand that I cannot control how a hug is received, and that not everyone has the ability to speak up about unwelcome behavior," he said. "It is my responsibility to be mindful of this, and to respect the Rules Committee’s request to not initiate hugs."

Hertzberg, who served as Assembly speaker from 2000 to 2002, previously apologized to "anyone who may have ever felt uncomfortable" and pledged to alter his greetings. He said he did not specifically remember any encounters with Halderman.

In a letter to "Friends and Colleagues" that he circulated on Thursday, Hertzberg pointed out that the investigation found his "motivation for hugging is not sexual in nature."

"All my life, a hug has been a way of greeting friends and colleagues – a gesture of warmth and kindness and a reflection of my exuberance," he wrote.

Hertzberg is known in state political circles for his signature hugs. A pin he distributed at the 2000 California Democratic convention read, “I was hugged by Assemblymember Bob Hertzberg.”

The veteran lawmaker is among several state legislators who have come under scrutiny since the "Me Too" movement cast a spotlight on sexual harassment under the Capitol dome.

Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, resigned last month after a Senate investigation confirmed that he likely made unwanted advances on six women, including four subordinates, over the last decade. 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, is on a leave of absence until her investigation concludes.

The Senate stripped Mendoza of his committee posts and pushed him to take a leave of absence pending the outcome of the investigation against him. Mendoza publicly questioned why Hertzberg, whom he referred to as a certain "Caucasian" senator, was not subjected to the same scrutiny. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has emphasized that Mendoza was accused of making unwanted advances on subordinates. The initial Hertzberg allegations involved complaints from his peers.

Halderman, a one-term Republican legislator from Fresno, told The Bee in December that she was first taken aback by Hertzberg's hugs when he came to Sacramento to teach an orientation for new lawmakers. Halderman said she eventually told him his embraces made her uncomfortable one day at the Capitol and that he grabbed her anyway, pinned her in his arms with one hand on her lower back, and thrust his groin into her.

She said she reported the encounter to Jon Waldie, the former chief administrative officer of the Assembly. Halderman said that Waldie laughed it off, saying “Bob’s just like that." She said she threatened to seek legal counsel and then Waldie agreed to talk to Hertzberg.

Waldie said he does not recall anything about Halderman's allegations and took umbrage with her claim that she threatened legal action. He added that he would have reported any threat of a lawsuit against a legislator to Legislative Counsel and top officials with the Assembly, which he also does not remember happening.

Halderman told The Bee that she declined to meet with investigators because she doubted the objectivity of the process when she learned that she would not have access to a final report on the investigation. The Senate has committed to hiring outside law firms to probe sexual harassment allegations and to publicly release a summary of any substantiated claims, but will not disclose the full reports.

"I can only say this has been a lot to go through to teach Senator Bob Hertzberg to keep his hands off men and women who find him creepy," Halderman said in a text message Thursday.

Two other sitting lawmakers came forward in December about encounters with Hertzberg and asked not to be named because they did not want the issue to interfere with their legislative work or feared retaliation. As a practice, the Senate does not name accusers.

One senator said Hertzberg, whom she had met only once, intimately hugged her from behind on the Senate floor the day she was sworn into the upper house in 2014. The senator said she turned around and told him to take his hands off her. She told him to never do it again and said he respected her wishes.

Hertzberg has previously acknowledged the incident and said he did not hug her again.

Another sitting lawmaker said she yelled at Hertzberg at a public event in early 2015 for inappropriately hugging her after she had previously told him it made her feel uncomfortable. Hertzberg said he could not remember this specific incident.

Hertzberg was previously reprimanded for pulling a legislative employee close to him and dancing with her in a different encounter in a Capitol office in 2015. The incident was investigated by the Senate and first revealed in early February when the Legislature released records related to substantiated sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and senior staff members over the last decade.

The unidentified female Senate employee told the Assembly in April 2015 that Hertzberg's actions, which occurred during a discussion about paint colors in another legislator’s office, were "uncomfortable and unwelcome," the Senate said in a note explaining the incident. Senate officials resolved the complaint by telling Hertzberg not to repeat the behavior and reminding him about the Senate’s harassment policy.

Hertzberg said in January that foes were attempting to weaponize the allegations against him to kill his effort to overhaul the money bail system in California.

T.J. Esposito, the owner of Bail Bond 360 and a marketing agent for his wife’s company Patriot Bail Bonds, launched a "Sacramento Victims Hotline" website and produced a video prominently featuring the allegations against Hertzberg in December. Esposito denied any connection between his work to urge women to report sexual harassment and Hertzberg's bail legislation. He eventually took down the video.

"We can't let this be the norm. Workplace misconduct is a critical issue," Hertzberg wrote in his letter to colleagues. "Our only goal should be to make the Capitol a safe workplace for everyone. ... I look forward to being a part of the change."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee