In response to multiple allegations of sexual harassment at the state Capitol, including claims against current legislators, the California Senate is revamping its process for handling sexual misconduct claims.
In an announcement late Sunday, the members of the Senate Rules Committee stated they are transferring oversight of sexual abuse and assault claims to an outside legal team.
“This process will be designed to protect the privacy of victims and whistleblowers, transparency for the public, and adequate due process for all parties involved,” committee members said in a joint statement.
The new process will involve the release of general investigative findings to the public and will include the recent allegations made against state Sen. Tony Mendoza.
Jennifer Kwart, now a staffer in the state Assembly, told the Sacramento Bee that Mendoza acted inappropriately toward her when she was an intern in his office. The Bee previously reported that Mendoza was under investigation for sexually harassing an employee.
In a statement to KQED, a spokesman for Mendoza said “the allegation is completely false.”
Kwart now works in the office of Assemblyman David Chiu, who said in a Saturday Facebook post that he has “serious doubts about whether the senator should continue to serve in public office.”
Cristina Garcia, chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, echoed that sentiment, telling KQED on Sunday that Mendoza shouldn’t be in office.
“If we’re committed to ending the culture in the Capitol, there have to be real consequences,” Garcia said. “Otherwise we’re just sending the message to all the victims that it’s business as usual.”
Garcia is making a pledge not to work with lawmakers who have been accused of sexual harassment.
“That means that I’m not going to add my name to any of their bills,” she said. “If they’re up for re-election, I’m not going to campaign for them.”
In response to the state Senate revising its process for investigating harassment allegations, the Senate Democratic Women’s Caucus endorsed the change in a written statement.
“The culture of harassment and the code of silence surrounding it have plagued this Capitol for too long — and it’s time for us to acknowledge that a system can’t protect victims and witnesses if victims and witnesses can’t trust the system,” the statement said.
“Creating an outside independent process and additional protections for victims and whistleblowers will help restore confidence that employees will be safeguarded and perpetrators — no matter how powerful — will be punished,” caucus members said.
The recent cascade of allegations has created a climate of fear among some legislators. According to one Sacramento lobbyist, some male lawmakers are second-guessing whether they should meet with women lobbyists in the current environment.
Lobbyist Jodi Hicks says a female client recently told her about a conversation she had with a male lawmaker — whom Hicks wouldn’t name — who declined to get drinks with her.
“The lawmaker said, ‘You know, I have some pause on that. There’s several of us that are thinking of making a policy that we won’t have drinks with women lobbyists right now in this environment,’ ” Hicks said.
Hicks’ firm later called the lawmaker, who backtracked on his previous stance. But she says the situation was frustrating and that refusing to meet with women lobbyists is not the answer to the Capitol’s sexual harassment problem.
“It’s clearly not getting this entire situation and how to handle it,” she said. “It’s also sending the message that, ‘We don’t believe you, and we think that if we meet with you, there’s a potential that you might say something about us.’ ”
Hicks says she felt confident speaking up because she’s established and well known in the Capitol. But she says that may not be the case for women who are still rising in the world of politics. Hicks is one of hundreds of women who signed an open letter last month condemning an atmosphere of sexual harassment in and around the Capitol.
The state Assembly will begin holding hearings on its sexual harassment policies at the end of the month. The Senate has contracted with an outside firm to look into allegations of harassment in that chamber.