Politics & Government

Candidate for California governor among those admonished for sexual misconduct, new records show

Republican gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen and three other sitting lawmakers were among those named in an unprecedented release of sexual harassment investigation records disclosed Friday by California legislative leaders.

None of the four legislators – Allen; Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey; Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles; and then-Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia – were disciplined beyond a verbal warning. Hertzberg and Mendoza, who now serve in the Senate, are both currently under investigation for additional claims.

The documents, which included complaints, investigative outcomes and monetary settlements, also included three former Democratic lawmakers whose cases The Sacramento Bee has previously reported: Rod Wright, Steve Fox and Raul Bocanegra.

The Democratic leaders of the Legislature committed to divulging more than a decade of reports following an October letter signed by nearly 150 women and the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus declaring their unwillingness to tolerate perpetrators or enablers in Sacramento and across state politics. Six of the 26 women currently serving in the Legislature, including Burke, and two former lawmakers joined the effort.

The Me Too movement, which has led to men resigning their powerful posts in entertainment, politics and corporate America in recent months, is similarly forcing the traditionally male-dominated and clubby Capitol community to begin reckoning with its own culture. Two Democratic assemblymen from Los Angeles resigned last fall and Mendoza is on a leave of absence pending a probe into his alleged abuses.

Documents released to the news media on Friday, after The Bee and other media outlets requested the public records, were for cases involving elected officials or “high-level” Capitol employees in which discipline was imposed or the allegations were “determined to be well-founded.” It also included settlement agreements, which the Legislature noted were “produced without regard to whether they underlying allegation was substantiated.” Other complaints not meeting that criteria were excluded from the release.

▪ In 2013, a staff member complained that Allen had seemed to “make a practice of being unnecessarily close to her” and it made her uncomfortable. She described a briefing where they sat next to each other and he slid his foot over to touch hers, and an another incident in which he came up behind her in the cafeteria and squeezed her shoulders. She said she heard from another woman in the office that when she shook hands with Allen, he held onto her hand and “petted it.”

Jon Waldie, former chief administrator of the Assembly, spoke to Allen after the complaint was filed and “reminded him to be very conscious of his conduct.” He said Allen “could not recall a time when he might have been too familiar with staff,” but did remember two women being overly friendly with him at an event outside of work.

In a statement, Allen called it an “unsubstantiated complaint” and criticized the release as a “political attack by a Democrat-led committee.”

“I’m sure I’ve shaken many people’s hands, tapped many people on the shoulder, and have even tapped people's feet accidentally,” Allen said. “But there has never been anything in any of my actions that has been inappropriate, and nor will there ever be. I was actually shocked six years ago that any friendliness I displayed was in any way misconstrued. Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from inappropriate behavior.”

▪ In 2016, a staff member complained about an incident in Assemblywoman Autumn Burke’s office that is almost entirely redacted: “Inappropriate talk was rampant,” they wrote. “Sitting outside in lobby with all staff standing around, I knew some day something was going to happen.”

The Assembly investigation found that, by Burke’s own admission, the Marina Del Rey Democrat participated in a conversation about anal sex with her staff. (Three other allegations are redacted.) “Based upon this finding, today we have discussed the inappropriateness of such conversations in the workplace,” Assembly human resources director Tosha M. Cherry wrote, “and I reiterated the need to maintain a professional environment in the office at all times consistent with Assembly policies.”

In a written statement Friday, Burke said the complaint was about an “after-hours conversation” in which one of her staff members “shared a personal story about his experiences as a young gay man.” She said the “claim was filed by a disgruntled former staff member who participated in the conversation,” but she took “full responsibility” for her part.

“As a leader, I recognize my obligation to ensure a safe and comfortable work environment for everyone in my office and I think every claim needs to be taken seriously,” she said. “However, I believed then and still believe that the complaint was motivated by the former staff member’s anger over being terminated.”

▪ Haley Myers, whose name is redacted in the Assembly documents, complained to the Assembly in 2010 that Sen. Tony Mendoza treated her differently and “cited frequent text messages with no business correlation,” as previously reported by The Bee. She complained about invitations to one-one-one lunches, dinners and drinks and hugs, according to the Assembly.

She reported that she was afraid to say no and was uncomfortable in fear of losing her job. Lynda Roper, the deputy administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee, met with Mendoza and advised him to only text her for business purposes and not to hug subordinates. Roper told Mendoza not to retaliate against Meyers, not raise the matter with her and move forward in a professional way.

▪ In November 2009, then-Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt wrote to then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that a staff member had "made some serious allegations regarding behavior in the office that involve" Wright and "refuses to go back there" in his presence. The rest of the complaint is redacted. A letter from Steinberg to Wright the following April discussing the results of the investigation mentions claims that Wright and members of his Capitol staff "engaged in coarse and vulgar language including words and phrases that need not be repeated in this letter." It also refers to two "entertainment videos" that were shown in the office to staff and lobbyists, and "one isolated incident of an angry work related reprimand which included profanity."

Steinberg wrote that the investigation did not find that Wright's conduct “constituted harassment of this employee as that term is defined by law," but did conclude that it “violated the Senate’s strict policies and practices concerning respectful behavior." After giving Wright “lasting credit" for not denying the allegations, Steinberg said the letter should be regarded as a "sternly worded admonishment" and a "direct instruction" to "avoid any such language and behavior in the future and to assure that your staff does the same.”

The Wright incident, as has been previously reported, resulted in a lawsuit and $120,000 settlement for the staff member, Fahizah Alim. In addition to dropping her lawsuit, Alim agreed to a “no publicity” clause and has repeatedly declined to discuss the settlement.

▪ Anthony Zamarron, the former chief of staff for Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, came under scrutiny in August 2013 after complaints were filed about his alleged inappropriate comments, according to two memos from Lynda Roper, deputy administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee.

Zamarron allegedly “talks about his weekend and people he’s slept with,” one memo from Roper stated. The memo said Zamarron would make comments to a female visitor from another office who would drop things off and, when she left, would say things like: “That may or may not have been awkward. She may have seen me naked,” Roper’s memo said.

In a separate Sept. 4, 2013, memo Roper addressed to Zamarron, in which she was following up on an Aug. 28 meeting about the complaints, she stated that Zamarron “understood some of the concerns” but denied making some comments and felt others were taken out of context. “Some of the statements you do not recall having made were reported to me by more than one person,” Roper wrote. She told Zamarron the Assembly has high expectations for professionalism in the workplace and “does not tolerate retaliation.”

▪ A female staff member who was district coordinator in 2009 for then Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, was fired after admitting to sending sexually explicit emails and talking about sex at work, according to a March 24, 2009, letter from the Assembly Rules Committee. In the letter, Elizabeth Nan Rider was informed she was being terminated, effective March 25, 2009, because the committee had "lost confidence in your professional judgment and ability to continue to serve..."

In the investigation, a human resources consultant found that Rider made sexually explicit comments and jokes and talked at work about her own sex life and that of others, including current and former subordinates, the letter stated. Emmerson was first elected to the Assembly in 2004, representing Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and stepped down in November 2013 in the middle of his term as a state senator to become a senior vice president of the California Hospital Association.

▪ Steve Davey, former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, left the job in 2016 after complaints about unwanted advances landed him on administrative leave.

In two cases, according to the complaints, Davey put his arm around unnamed people. One incident occurred at a grocery store in Truckee, the other at the California International Marathon, according to the complaints. One complaint asserted that Gaines did not know about the allegations of physical touching but had been told about Davey’s “demeaning attitude and shouting.”

The complaint said Gaines discussed the issue with Davey. The Rules Committee document said Davey was placed on administrative leave Dec. 21, 2015 – 10 days after the complaint came in – and he resigned on Feb. 8, 2016, Senate officials said.

▪ The Senate suspended for two weeks without pay Rod Grossman, director of information technology, in 2015. Then move came after an investigation found that a female Senate employee refused to work with him because of unwanted touching during a group photo in 2014. The document from the Senate Rules Committee said the woman complained loudly that he had touched her shoulder during the photo shoot.

Also, the document detailed a complaint from a woman that Grossman made “inappropriate comments” about the way she was dressed. “Your comments to (the woman) were inappropriate and presented an unprofessional image to those who had to witness it,” the reprimand said. The letter warned that another incident would result in his firing.

▪ The case of Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, also appears in the files. An employee complained in April 2015 that Herzberg grabbed her and began to dance with her during a conversation about paint colors in his office. The Senate described the action as “unwelcome,” and told the senator not to engage in the activity again.

Three current and former female lawmakers came forward to The Bee in December to allege that Hertzberg inappropriately hugged and touched them, including an incident that one woman contended crossed the line into what she considered assault.

Repercussions of the unfolding allegations led to the resignations of Assembly Democrats Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh.

Bocanegra was the first sitting lawmaker to resign as the “We Said Enough” movement gained steam. Seven women, including several who worked under him when he was a Capitol chief of staff, said he groped or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward them. Bocanegra denied most of the allegations, but he said the opportunity for due process had been “lost in a hurricane of political opportunism among the self-righteous.”

The new documents state that while there were no firsthand witnesses who observed the alleged misconduct of a 2009 complaint, an investigation showed that “it is more likely than not that ... you did engage in inappropriate behavior.”

In one of the most high-profile cases, lobbyist Pamela Lopez accused Dababneh of pushing her into a bathroom at a Las Vegas hotel and masturbating in front of her. Four other women said Dababneh made unwanted sexual advances and crude remarks to them while they worked for him. He denied the allegations, but resigned in December, he said, to focus on clearing his name.

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said the California Capitol must be a safe environment for those who work and conduct business there. De León said officials have taken several steps to build confidence in how the Senate investigates and staff reports sexual harassment allegations.

“With the release of these documents, the Senate and Assembly are united in declaring sexual harassment in the Capitol will not be tolerated and will be met with severe consequences,” de León said.

Still, organizers of the “We Said Enough” letter called it a “selective release of data” that will “further erode the trust that so many victims and survivors hope to rebuild.”

“This release presented an opportunity towards re-gaining the trust of the public and of those who work in the Capitol community,” the statement said. “However, this effort falls dramatically short of a comprehensive or transparent release of information.”

Women have expressed concerns about a prior lack of transparency in the aftermath of their complaints.

When the Legislature returned in early January, Rendon and de León announced a joint committee to examine procedures for processing sexual complaints. The move was viewed by some as a way to staunch persistent criticism generated by separate handling of human resources complaints.

On Thursday, a Republican measure designed to provide whistleblower protections to those working in the Legislature, which for four years was scuttled by Senate Democrats, passed the body.

Assembly Bill 403, with more than half of state lawmakers added as co-authors, cleared the Senate by unanimous vote. Earlier iterations of the legislation quietly died in the Senate Appropriations Committee before the sexual harassment allegations upended the Capitol.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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