An Assembly investigation did not corroborate allegations that Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia drunkenly groped a former legislative staff member.
The Bell Gardens Democrat took an unpaid leave from the Assembly in February after Daniel Fierro, who now operates a political communications firm in Cerritos, said she cornered him at a legislative softball game in 2014, squeezed his butt and attempted to grab his crotch.
"I look forward to returning to work and getting back to the business of representing my constituents," Garcia said in a statement Thursday declaring that she had been "exonerated." Her spokeswoman said she has not yet decided on a return date to the Capitol.
Though cleared of the most serious charge against her, Garcia will be removed from her committee memberships and required to attend sensitivity training after the investigation found that she violated the Assembly's sexual harassment policy by using vulgar language, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced.
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"This independent review by trained investigators was conducted in exactly the same way as investigations into other members of the Assembly have been," Rendon said in a statement. "While this investigation was conducted strictly by the book, I have consistently agreed that the policy needs to be updated."
Rendon said he would "withhold further comment" pending the official conclusion of the investigation. Both sides still have 10 business days to appeal the findings.
Fierro said he is working with his attorney on filing an appeal. He criticized Garcia for not giving him time to do so before commenting publicly.
"I find it incredibly inappropriate that a sitting member of the Assembly would jump ahead of an established appeal process and release information before it was appropriate," he said.
Fierro also cast doubt on the results of the investigation. He said he provided witnesses to the Assembly who were never interviewed, including one whom he said the investigator never even contacted.
"This is disappointing and it still leaves serious questions," he said. "This process is incredibly opaque."
The Assembly investigation did substantiate at least three complaints about inappropriate behavior by Garcia, including that she "disparaged other elected officials," according to a letter sent Thursday to the lawyer for several former employees who submitted a claim against her.
In February, former staffer J. David Kernick filed a complaint with the state, seeking to sue Garcia for allegedly firing him in 2014 after he refused to play spin the bottle with her. Garcia denied the accusation.
Kernick's lawyer, Dan Gilleon of San Diego, had days earlier submitted a claim with the Assembly on behalf of four anonymous former employees describing a "toxic environment" of heavy drinking and graphic sexual discussions in Garcia's office.
"I want to inform you that three of the complaints you presented on behalf of your clients were substantiated," Debra Gravert, the Assembly's chief administrative officer, wrote in a letter to Gilleon on Thursday. "Based upon those findings, the Assembly has taken appropriate remedial measures with respect to Assemblymember Garcia designed to prevent this or similar behavior in the future."
Gravert said the Assembly found that Garcia had "commonly and pervasively used vulgar language with, to and around staff" and had asked her staff to perform personal errands, in addition to the disparaging remarks about her colleagues.
Garcia previously admitted in a March interview with KQED that she used homophobic slurs against former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.
"I would like to sincerely apologize to my colleagues in the Legislature, my staff and most importantly to the residents of the 58th Assembly District for instances where my use of language was less than professional," Garcia said in her statement. "I want to assure everyone that I have learned from this experience and will do everything in my power to make amends for my past."
"Nothing is more important to me than protecting the health and safety of the people I represent," she added. "I know that I can only effectively serve my constituents if staff and my colleagues feel comfortable and respected on the job. That is the climate I pledge to build and sustain."
Gilleon said the investigation vindicated his clients' complaints, even though they did not participate in the process. He did not allow his clients to be interviewed because he felt that the investigator hired by the Assembly was not truly independent.
He said the Assembly could not investigate the spin the bottle incident, which was not mentioned in Gravert's letter, without Kernick's cooperation.
"What's discouraging is they were not willing to do this in a way that was transparent," Gilleon said.
Garcia is up for re-election this year and faces a tough race in light of the allegations against her. Several Democrats in the liberal district have announced challenges, and the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California already has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent committee to defeat her.