In California’s Capitol, 147 women’s #MeToo statement must not be shrugged off

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, meet with reporters earlier this year.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, meet with reporters earlier this year. AP

Every once in a while, the sordid details spill into the public, as they did Wednesday when the Assembly disclosed that a former Democratic legislator’s disgusting behavior cost taxpayers $100,000.

Or last year when Roger Hernandez, a termed-out L.A.-area Democratic assemblyman, was stripped of his committee assignments after his former wife accused him of domestic abuse.

This week, inspired by the outrage in Hollywood over the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women who work in and around the Capitol spoke up en masse against the sexist culture in their own workplace.

In all, 147 high-powered women signed a letter saying they are sick of “dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplace.” Signatories included current and former legislators, corporate lobbyists, Capitol staffers, political consultants and attorneys.

“Why didn’t we speak out? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands,” the letter said.

Their points are well taken. Enough is enough, especially in oh-so-progressive California.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is running for U.S. Senate, lauded “the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices known.” Speaker Anthony Rendon said: “The letter shows that sexual harassment is as prevalent in the Capitol as it is anywhere else in society.”

There is, however, a difference. The Legislature tells people not in government how to behave and prescribes penalties for those who stray. And it’s not as if these allegations are new. A few days before the women released their letter, the Assembly released records to The Sacramento Bee showing taxpayers paid $100,000 to a former staffer who filed a complaint saying former Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Palmdale, exposed himself.

“My story is a cautionary tale,” Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, who was Fox’s legislative director, told The Bee’s Alexei Koseff. “I basically lost my career at the Capitol, and I lost most of my friends there.”

The first step to recovery must be for the Legislature to acknowledge its problem. The Legislature has paid $850,000 to make no fewer than five harassment claims go away in recent decades.

In the Fox settlement, the Assembly and Fox “denied and continue to deny” the claims. In other words, whatever pabulum legislative leaders dish for public consumption, their lawyers protect the institution by denying wrongdoing.

Legislators should shine a light on miscreant legislators. As it is, dogged reporters such as Koseff must file Legislative Open Records Act requests to obtain details about harassment cases. The Legislature could simply declare that legislators who act inappropriately will be identified in press releases naming them and the size of settlements. Fear of public shaming would deter most politicians.

The letter signed by the 147 women doesn’t name names. But the women who signed it know the offenders. Victims should be encouraged to testify, in confidence if they want, before a special counsel or tribunal of some sort. Perhaps an internal affairs office, independent of the legislative leaders, should be established to handle complaints.

Casting a vote for pay equity or stiffening penalties for sexual harassment in other people’s workplaces is easy. Legislators need to live by the rules they impose on others. They must not minimize the allegations. They need to take care of their own house.