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State lawmakers have enabled culture of sexual harassment

State lawmakers have enabled culture of sexual harassment

Jon Fleischman


POSTED November 29, 2017 9:06 a.m.
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The issue of sexual harassment has jumped to the forefront of public discourse in a relatively short period of time, with revelations about alleged sexual misconduct ranging from the inappropriate to the illegal.

The accusations have flown from the studios of Hollywood to the halls of Congress, from film executive Harvey Weinstein to longtime television news personality Charlie Rose; from National Public Radio news chief Michael Oreskes to Senator Al Franken (D-MN); from Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) to Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

With each passing day, more stories are coming out, and the California State Capitol, while a relative side-show compared to some of the more newsworthy persons dominating national politics, has been turned on its head.

In mid-October, a bipartisan group of more than 140 women - lawmakers, lobbyists and consultants - signed a letter calling attention to pervasive sexual harassment in California politics. Since that time, two California state legislators - Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) and Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) - have been embroiled in scandal, with multiple women coming forward making scathing accusations about each.

In the case of the former, Mendoza has denied allegations. Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) recently suspended Mendoza's chairmanship of the powerful State Senate Banking Committee, pending further investigation. With regards to Bocanegra, he has admitted wrongdoing. Facing increasing scrutiny, he has announced that he will be resigning from the legislature - albeit on an arbitrary date he picked in September of next year. Assembly Speaker Rendon (D-South Gate) has removed him from his leadership position and his committee assignments.

I won't take the time in this column to detail the specific allegations against both, but suffice it to say they paint an alarming picture of a culture in the State Capitol that has been permissive of such bad behavior, or worse. One can assume that this will only snowball in the coming weeks and months, as more revelations occur. (For example, de Leon, it has been revealed, was roommates in Sacramento with Mendoza, moving out just days ago - which is significant in that accusations against Mendoza include inappropriate activities taking place in his residence).

The California Legislature, however, has taken steps to make sure that the permissive culture of sexual harassment would thrive - embracing the idea that legislators not only make the law, but are above the law.

For decades, the only way that someone who was harassed or abused could bring it to anyone's attention would have been to go to legislative leadership - never mind the obvious conflict of interest there. What legislative remedies have been pursued by some have been bottled up in committees. A great example is legislation pursued for years in a row by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Temecula) to protect whistleblowers who report unethical or inappropriate behavior. It has never made it to the Governor's desk. It should come as no surprise that laws were passed giving all other state government employees whistleblower protection, but the legislature was exempt.

Speaking of exemptions, the Los Angeles Times put in a request for details on any formal investigations of allegations of sexual abuse on the legislature. It received a brief summary indicating that in the last decade there have been 31 such investigations - 15 in the State Senate and 16 in the State Assembly - but the legislature has refused to provide any more detail, and is not obliged to provide any more detail. That is because the California legislature exempted itself from the Public Records Act, which applies to the rest of state government.

There are some actions that the governor and legislature can take to try to regain some credibility here, and try to end Sacramento's toxic culture. And while Democrats in the Capitol control all of the levers of state government - and are the only ones that can create laws in a partisan fashion - Republicans have the bully pulpit and can publicly call for Governor Jerry Brown to call a special legislative session to deal with this issue immediately. In the special session, the legislature should send several bills to Brown for his signature, including:

• A bill to establish that a law enforcement agency (perhaps the California Highway Patrol) has jurisdiction over investigations of allegations of sexual harassment in the Capitol. The idea is to put someone in charge of such investigations who is not beholden to legislators.

• The Melendez whistleblower protection bill that has been shoved into a legislative drawer for years.

• A bill to make sure that the legislature is subject to the California Public Records Act, like every other part of state government.

Finally, there should be a formal investigation into de Leon's friendship with his now-former roommate, Senator Mendoza. Perhaps de Leon's position should even be suspended pending the outcome.

The idea that de Leon, as chairman of the Rules Committee (made up of Democrats and Republicans who are his hand-picked choices), is going to clean up the Senate's act lacks credulity.

Jon Fleischman is a political strategist and the publisher of the FlashReport, a California political website. He is a former executive director of the Republican Party of California.

 

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