Why sexual harassment persists in the Capitol: They don’t ask and don’t want to be told

'There are perpetrators...and enablers in this building'

Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, said news of sexual assault or harassment at the Capitol is largely shared through a 'whisper network' but not reported. Video courtesy of The California Channel.
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Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, said news of sexual assault or harassment at the Capitol is largely shared through a 'whisper network' but not reported. Video courtesy of The California Channel.

Debra Gravert, the highest ranking non-elected member of the California Assembly, wasn’t lying Tuesday when she testified before a committee looking into sexual harassment by legislators that the Assembly had no “nondisclosure agreements.”

Those would be agreements in which victims promise not to disclose details of whatever job-related harassment they have endured in exchange for receiving whatever settlement or severance the Assembly might pay out.

Nor did she lie to The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff, who made a straightforward request for “any nondisclosure agreements entered into by the Assembly since Jan. 1, 2007.”

“We have no records responsive to your request,” Gravert, the Assembly’s chief administrative officer, wrote back on Nov. 16.

Roughly three and a half hours into the hearing, after Gravert had completed her testimony, Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, noted that the Assembly probably hadn’t entered into any nondisclosure agreements.

But, Reyes said, “we do have non-disparagement agreements.”

If it wasn’t clear before, it suddenly become obvious how the Legislature, ever so progressive and always ready to tell the rest of us how to live, has managed to tap dance around policing itself against the most basic of workplace hazards: creeps who would lord positions of power over underlings in service of their own needs. Leaders don’t ask and they make it hard for women to tell.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon deserves acknowledgment for allowing the hearing to take place, albeit six weeks after 140-plus women signed a #MeToo letter detailing indignities they have endured as they worked as staffers, lobbyists and consultants. Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, did an admirable job of chairing the hearing.

But whatever credit may be due California’s majority party for starting to come clean, ever so gingerly, on Tuesday about this ongoing and expensive problem, it pales next to the contribution of women who have been leading the #WeSaidEnough campaign in California’s Capitol, and testified about the harassment they and others have endured.

Pamela Lopez, a former legislative staffer who’s now a lobbyist, told the legislators about the “disappeared.”

They’re the young women who work in the Capitol one day and then don’t. Men who harass them understand that the best way to cover their tracks is “to get rid of the evidence” – evidence being the victim of unwanted advances and worse. Women quit because they become disgusted and fearful, or because their bosses find problems with their work and force them out.

“We are so aware of how powerless we are,” Lopez said.

Though not part of her public testimony, Lopez told the New York Times that a legislator in 2016 masturbated in front her in a restroom of a Capitol-area bar. She hasn’t named the legislator, and no legislator at the hearing questioned her about it. They didn’t want details to be publicly disclosed, evidently. Nor did any legislator question Democratic Party women’s caucus chair, Christine Pelosi, when she testified that there are “rapists” and “molesters” who work in the Capitol. If there are, police ought to be informed. Public safety is at stake.

Alicia Lewis, former Senate staffer and chief of staff to an Assembly member, testified that the system “shields the perpetrator first.” Staffers, she said, “don’t believe” process works. For good reason.

Gravert told the committee that there has been no investigation of an Assembly member for harassment during her three years on the job. No word on whether the Assembly is investigating Lopez’s accusation about the masturbating legislator. The Assembly, she said, has records of eight investigations that occurred before she arrived. But the Assembly policy is to purge records after six years, astonishingly, given that members can serve a dozen years and generally run for other offices.

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, asked a basic question: “How many complaints in totality” have there been against members of the Assembly or senior staffers?

“We don’t track complaints. We only track investigations,” Gravert answered.

“Isn’t that problematic?” Fong asked.

Yes, it is. But the reason it has remained the policy is obvious: The Assembly leadership doesn’t count complaints because it doesn’t want to know. It doesn’t provide the public access to details of investigations because it doesn’t want voters to know. And it’s time for that way of doing business to stop.

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