Fear and yelling in L.A. congressman’s office led to silence on harassment, aides say

Los Angeles-area Congressman Brad Sherman says none of his staff ever complained about longtime aide and California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who’s been accused of sexual harassment while working in the congressman’s district office.

Eight former aides said the environment in Sherman’s D.C. and California offices was so toxic, it was laughable to think junior staff would have felt comfortable raising concerns about harassment – or anything else.

“Congressman Sherman showed zero interest in the personal well-being of his staffers and there’s no reason to believe he would have cared or taken any action if a complaint was made,” said one former staffer.

Dababneh, who is resigning from the Assembly in the wake of several allegations against him, including sexual assault, was known to be one of Sherman’s closest and most trusted employees. While no one suggested the 11-term congressman was aware of Dababneh’s alleged conduct, three former staffers doubted he would have responded well to criticism of his onetime district director.

Among aides, Dababneh was known to date a lot of women, according to Lauren Attard, Sherman’s former legislative counsel. Another former aide says she remembered “being shocked with the way [Dababneh] spoke.” While she couldn’t recall the specifics of what he said, the aide said “he made me feel uncomfortable and I still remember it.”

The Sacramento Bee spoke to 13 former staffers who have worked for Sherman at various periods over more than a decade. At least a half dozen more declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries. Most of them refused to speak for attribution because they feared it would hurt their professional careers.

A new law that took effect in August makes companies, not individuals, liable for misconduct alleged in lawsuits. “You can sue the company but you can’t sue the harasser.”

Of the 13, six former aides defended their onetime boss as demanding but accessible. They were primarily senior staff, and Sherman’s office recommended that The Bee contact three of them. All but one of the junior aides provided a consistent description of a workplace rife with verbal abuse from the congressman and senior staff that made them feel bullied and demoralized.

“It was a rare day that several staffers were not screamed at,” recalled one. And it was not just about work performance, he said, but about things that were far beyond the scope of their jobs. This reporter witnessed one such instance, earlier this year, when the congressman derisively dressed down an aide as they awaited a cable news interview in Washington, D.C.

The former aides also contested the congressman’s claim, made when the first accusations against Dababneh came out earlier this month, that he maintained a strong anti-sexual harassment policy and encouraged staff to voice their concerns. The day-to-day treatment of staff sent the opposite message, they said.

The number of staff that cycled through Sherman’s office support complaints that he was a difficult boss. According to a 2013 survey by The Washington Times, Sherman had one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress over the previous decade. The paper noted the congressman went through more chiefs of staff — seven — than any other lawmaker during the time period. House staff voted him one of the “meanest” members of Congress in a Washingtonian survey in 2012.

Sherman, himself, acknowledged in a statement to The Bee that he is “a demanding boss,” but denied that his management style contributed to the silence about Dababneh’s behavior. “Throughout media, business and government, employers with a wide variety of different procedures and managerial styles have found that women were reluctant to come forward,” he noted.

Jessica Yas Barker, a former field representative in Sherman’s Sherman Oaks office, was one of several women who has alleged Dababneh harassed her. She acknowledged she should have raised her concerns about his behavior earlier. The culture in Sherman’s office didn’t encourage her to come forward, however.

“It definitely felt like an environment where this was just the way things were,” Barker said. “I did not feel there was any channel by which I could report things.”

She acknowledged that she probably received paperwork at the beginning of her job outlining Congress’ policies prohibiting sexual harassment (Sherman’s office affirms that written notices about reporting harassment were provided to all staff). But Barker said that was as far as the office went in terms of prevention, something a half dozen other staffers affirmed.

The accounts of a hostile work environment echo those detailed recently by former aides to Republican Reps. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania and Blake Farenthold of Texas. Collectively, they reinforce the growing belief that HR policies on Capitol Hill are profoundly inadequate to protect young, underpaid staff from sexual harassment, discrimination and other abuse at the hands of people in power.

Amid the heightened scrutiny of the #MeToo movement, Congress is weighing changes to the Office of Compliance, which handles reports of workplace abuse in Hill offices. Critics say the drawn out, secretive process for handling complaints only serves to protect abusers.

That still may not be enough to erode a stubborn culture of silence, driven by the fear that no employer – particularly politicians, who demand fierce loyalty from their staff – will hire an aide who has complained about his or her boss in the past. “The perception is if you go to someplace like” the Office of Compliance, “your career is over,” said one former Sherman aide.

California Rep. Brad Sherman filed an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Wednesday, accusing him of obstructing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The Dababneh allegations first exploded into public view during a Dec. 4 press conference in Sacramento. Pamela Lopez, a Sacramento lobbyist, said Dababneh pushed her into a Las Vegas bathroom and masturbated in front of her in 2016 – a story she’d gone public with in October, without naming the perpetrator. Lopez was joined at the press event by Barker, who alleged that Dababneh repeatedly made lewd and suggestive remarks when he was her boss in Sherman’s district office.

Then last week, Carrie McFadden, an intern on Sherman’s 2012 campaign, described to the Los Angeles Times how Dababneh regularly discussed his sex life in the office, making her uncomfortable. Two other women also told the Times that Dababneh exposed himself and/or sexually assaulted them. The 36-year-old San Fernando Valley Democrat has denied the accusations, but announced on Dec. 8 that he’s resigning from the Assembly at the end of the year to focus on clearing his name.

In response to the news about Dababneh, Sherman’s office initially gave a statement to the Times saying he has “always had a strong policy against sexual harassment.” In it, the congressman noted that “several times each year I have private conversations with each district office employee in which I ask a number of questions including: is there anything about your job (other than pay) which you do not like – or want to change? Is your supervisor doing a good job?”

Erin Prangley hired Dabaneh when she was Sherman’s district director, beginning in 2004, and recommended he succeed her when she was promoted in 2009. She said she was surprised and sorry to hear staff complain the congressman and his senior staff were not accessible. “I never saw any barriers put between the staff and the congressman when I was there,” Prangley said, and in many instances staff went directly to Sherman to raise issues with him, rather than go through her.

Attard affirms that. She recalls the congressman asking her, “What’s going on in the office? What can I do better?”

Another former aide, who began as an entry level employee, also said she felt comfortable approaching the congressman about several issues. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because her current employer generally bars staff from speaking on the record for news stories. The aide recalled her discovery that a coworker was making more money than her, though they started at the same time. She addressed it with the congressman, and her salary was eventually adjusted.

While the aide acknowledged there was yelling in the office, she says that was typical in the political world. “Some staffers weren’t tough, they couldn’t meet his expectations,” she explained.

That sentiment was shared by a handful of other aides, including Attard, former chief of staff Bradford Cheney and former legislative director Gary Goldberg, who suggested the tenor of Sherman’s office wasn’t much different than any other high-pressure environment. Capitol Hill is known for being full of big egos and sharp elbows. Staff jobs offer a highly coveted foot in the door for careers in politics and policy, so aides put up with long hours, low pay and often difficult work environments.

Every member of Congress has a virtually unfettered ability to set office standards, including salaries, leave policies and staff duties. It is not unheard of to demand that staff fetch laundry, make doctor appointments, or even babysit members’ children.

What virtually all of Sherman’s former aides agree is that working for a member of Congress has a way of warping what is “normal” for a workplace. The mentality, according to one former staffer, is to not report concerns. Rather, it’s that “we have to live with this until we move onto the next job.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei