California’s legislators must end secrecy over sexual harassment cases

After being accused of sexual misconduct against underlings, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned Monday and the Senate Rules Committee stripped Sen. Tony Mendoza of his committee assignments. Good.

Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, won’t be missed, except by the moneyed interest groups that enabled him, and Californians will get along fine without having Mendoza, D-Artesia, chair the Senate committee that oversees the banking and insurance industries. Congress, take note: The #MeToo issue isn’t going away, at any level of government.

But the Legislature’s reckoning for transgressions by people in power against their underlings will not be complete until Californians know the full scope of what has transpired. And we don’t.

In addition to approving legislation by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, that would extend whistle blower protection to legislative staffers, the Senate and Assembly need to end the practice of insisting that victims sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settling harassment claims.

Victims should have the right to speak out, if they so choose, without fear of retaliation by the Senate and Assembly, and voters should be able to hear the whole story. To the extent the law allows, the Legislature also should release victims from past nondisclosure agreements.

On Tuesday, the Assembly will hold an initial hearing on the issue, drawing on experts and people with stories to tell. That’s a start. For its part, the Senate Rules Committee led by lame-duck Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León held a brief public hearing Monday in which it rightfully stripped Mendoza of his positions.

But in a tone-deaf move, the committee retreated into a closed session. We presume but do not know that Rules Committee members further discussed the issue first raised last month when women staffers, lobbyists and consultants signed a #WeSaidEnough letter alleging acts of harassment.

De León, meanwhile, has appointed a seven-person panel to select an outside law firm that will investigate future harassment claims. That step might be solid. But the committee he created includes three Democratic senators, plus the legislative counsel and Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, who both report to the Democratic majority.

A sixth member is a lobbyist who depends on Democrats to support her clients’ positions. Only one is a Republican, Senate GOP leader Patricia Bates. Forgive our skepticism, but that’s hardly a balanced committee.

Transparency would help. Unfortunately, legislative leaders still seem bent on hiding behind hyper-legal interpretations of the law.

Alvarez, for example, recently responded to a request filed by The Sacramento Bee under the Legislative Open Records Act for all nondisclosure agreements dating to 2007 by releasing a handful of such agreements. His counterpart in the Assembly said there were “no records responsive to your request.”

Multiple sources have said they or people they know have signed such agreements to receive settlement or severance checks.

Nondisclosure agreements might protect those whose careers could otherwise be ruined by a misunderstanding or an uncharacteristic error, but they also serve legislators and senior legislative staffers who harass or bully underlings, and deny voters a clear picture of the politicians they’re hiring.

Bocanegra was a senior Assembly staffer in 2009 when the Assembly quietly settled a case in which another staffer accused him of stalking and groping her at a Sacramento bar. Perhaps he would not have won the election in 2012 if voters had been fully informed of the accusation against him.

The public, which ultimately bears the cost of harassment, should get to know how much is spent on claims, who benefits and which lawmakers have made us liable.

If legislators, whose reputations are their currency, know that mistreating workers will result in public shaming, they will come to understand that they were elected to do the people’s business, not their own.

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