Capitol Alert

New sexual misconduct plan at California Capitol moves investigations to independent unit

Why new sexual misconduct policy is a culture shift for California Legislature

Sen. Holly Mitchell and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman explain why the new sexual harassment policy they’ve developed is a big change for the Legislature.
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Sen. Holly Mitchell and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman explain why the new sexual harassment policy they’ve developed is a big change for the Legislature.

The California Legislature will relinquish much of its control over sexual harassment complaints and investigations at the Capitol to independent panels under a new policy proposal unveiled Friday by the Assembly and Senate.

A draft of the plan calls for a new unit, comprised of investigators with specialized training in workplace harassment, to accept, assess and investigate misconduct complaints in both houses. The Legislature would also appoint a panel of subject-matter experts to make factual determinations on cases and recommend the appropriate response to each house. Both entities would work independently in the Legislative Counsel's Office, which serves as the Legislature’s lawyers.

"The panel will be empowered to make their recommendations and findings without input from legislative counsel," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, chair of the Joint Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response. "They will be free to make their determinations as they see fit."

The sweeping changes, which Friedman described as a "sea change," were developed by a committee of lawmakers formed from both houses in January to improve the Legislature's response to sexual harassment. The policy would apply to anyone making accusations against legislative employees and lawmakers, including lobbyists and members of the public.

After the #MeToo movement last fall revealed a widespread problem in state politics that ultimately led to the resignation of three lawmakers, advocates leading the charge in Sacramento pressured the Senate and Assembly to adopt uniform policies to address the problem. It marks a substantial shift for the two distinct bodies, which are typically governed by different administrative rules.

"It was important that we did it that way to really send a strong signal that this is a culture shift," said Sen. Holly Mitchell, vice chair of the committee. "This is a shift reflecting a focus and fact that it’s a priority of both leaders of both houses. "

The draft policy will be considered by the sexual harassment committee in hearings next week, ahead of a vote later this month. The plan is based on personnel policies developed by Los Angeles County and would replace two separate procedures in each house for investigating and disciplining sexual misconduct. The Legislature's response to complaints was sharply criticized last fall by current and former Capitol employees for discouraging victims from coming forward and brushing claims under the rug.

In October, nearly 150 women in California politics released an open letter decrying the male-dominated power structure at the Capitol that they said had perpetuated a "pervasive" culture of abuse. Their campaign ignited intense scrutiny of a culture in Sacramento that women said failed to protect victims and ignored lawmakers' behavior.

Friedman and Mitchell met with reporters on Friday and detailed a set of goals developed after five hearings and more than 13 hours of testimony from outside experts. The lawmakers said they want to fix the culture, act quickly, independently weigh facts and recommend responses, and provide confidentiality to victims.

The draft policy also proposes to overhaul sexual harassment training to be more engaging, accept anonymous complaints, consider an online reporting tool, and encourage supervisors to report any inappropriate conduct they become aware of. In cases involving lawmakers and senior staff members, the investigative unit could still hire an outside investigator.

The Legislature would release details on cases involving lawmakers or high-level staff members if the claims against them were found to be true and they were disciplined, according to the early proposal.

The committee has yet to determine how it will hire the experts for the five-member disciplinary panel. Friedman said they are looking for retired judges or lawyers with decades of experience in employment discrimination. In order to maintain the panel's independence – a significant concern after employee complaints that the Legislature's human resources departments protected the houses over victim who complained – Friedman said they are talking with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye about appointing its members.

While the panel would make recommendations, the final decisions on discipline would ultimately be up to the individual houses, according to the draft policy. If the Senate or Assembly wanted to do something different than what the panel recommended, it would have to explain and document the reasons.

Adama Iwu, a leader of the movement that called attention to harassment in California politics last fall, declined to offer an analysis of the Legislature's proposal until she understood the full scope of the plan. Some of the details will have to be worked out in hearings next week.

"I've talked to legislators all over the country, all over the world, and they are all grappling with this same issue: What do you do when you receive a complaint?" Iwu said. "It's encouraging that the Legislature continues to give this consideration and continues to put thought, effort, resources and time into coming up with a solution."

The committee plans to meet Monday to share the results of a culture survey of Capitol employees and discuss the policy recommendations. The Joint Committee on Rules is expected to adopt the new policy on June 25.

Two lawmakers have resigned and one is on leave at the California Capitol over allegations of improper conduct toward women at the California Capitol. At least one other is under investigation, while the Legislature decides what the next steps are.

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