The California Assembly announced Tuesday, Oct. 31, that hearings are set for the last week of November on sexual harassment and assault at the state Capitol.
They expect to hear from women who say they have been sexually harassed, and will also focus on ways to better protect people from harassment and bullying, an issue that’s gaining momentum as more women speak out about these incidents.
More than 140 people, including legislators, staffers, lobbyists and others who work in and around the state Capitol signed a letter denouncing a pattern of sexual improprieties in the Legislature.
One weakness they hope to address during the hearings: Capitol staffers are at-will employees and are often fearful of coming forward with complaints because they’re afraid of being dismissed.
But women are coming out, including Elise Flynn Gyore who last week accused Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-39th Dist.) of groping her in 2009 when he was chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes.
That incident allegedly occurred at an afterwork event attended by legislators, staff and lobbyists. Gyore said that as she headed to the bathroom, Bocanegra approached her, put his hands inside her blouse and touched her breasts, something completely unprovoked and shocking.
An investigation by independent attorneys hired by the Legislature concluded that “it is more likely than not that Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectations for professionalism,” according to a June 22, 2009, letter from the Assembly Rules Committee reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
The letter barred Bocanegra from communicating with Gyore, who has said in interviews she also tries to avoid him.
On Wednesday, Oct. 31,state Democratic Party party chair Eric Bauman was quoted as saying that Bocanegra needs to think “long and hard” about resigning during Bauman’s appearance at the Sacramento Press Club.
Bocanegra Offers an Apology
Pressed about this incident, the Assemblymember — who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley — apologized for his behavior.
“This unfortunate experience I was involved in as a staffer nearly 10 years ago was something I regret and learned from. As to the complaint filed, I fully cooperated with the investigation and after a comprehensive review by an independent body, which included interviews of over a dozen witnesses, the investigation was closed,” Bocanegra, 46, said in a statement.
“I will work closely with my colleagues to ensure all processes involving sexual harassment are handled properly and fairly and that no woman or man who has been harassed is retaliated against by members or staff,” he added. “Again, I’m deeply regretful about putting someone in this position and I want to apologize most sincerely.”
But some women are saying the apology is not enough.
“I refuse to work with @AsmBocanegra and anyone who takes part in harassment or assault. #IStandWithElise,” tweeted Assemblymember Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), after hearing about the allegations made by Gyore.
Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez – Fletcher (D-San Diego) also tweeted, “I don’t know Elise Gyore. But, I believe her & I’m grateful for her bravery. This is unacceptable.”
In addition Garcia, chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, and state Sen. Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino), caucus vice-chair, chastised their fellow legislators in a statement condemning sexual assault in the Capitol community.
“Within the last week, the indefensible actions of some male members of the Legislature show a lack of accountability and remorse. The absence of repercussions is yet another example of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment within California politics. This culture is further perpetuated when the Legislature’s own zero-tolerance policies are not enforced. It has resulted in the complicity that has given rise to the power and influence these men possess within the establishment. The lack of protections for victims is further proof of why they stay silent within these halls.
“As members of the Legislature, we unequivo-cally condemn Assemblyman Bocanegra and Assemblyman [Devon] Mathis’ alleged actions, and call upon our leadership to review their — and any other member’s behavior — that render them unfit to hold office and immediately enforce, for once, the bodies’ zero-tolerance policies.”
Mathis (R-Visalia) has been accused of sexually assaulting a staff member in an article posted on the nonprofit American Children First’s website. Mathis denies the allegation.
Faced by the growing chorus of women denouncing these improprieties, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said two independent firms have been hired to investigate the cases.
“The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer will be conducting an external investigation of the allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and CPS Consulting has been retained to review the Senate’s policies and practices against harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” De León said. “Everyone de-serves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior and I applaud the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices heard. ”While the disclosure of Bocanegra’s misconduct may have surprised many, that wasn’t the case for Patty Lopez, the former Assemblymember who held the 39th District seat after coming from nowhere to beat him in the 2014 election. Bocanegra would win the seat back in 2016.“This wasn’t new, but he’s protected by the politicians in the area. Why do they keep protecting him?” Lopez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
“I’m surprised the few women politicians in the area supported him. There should be zero tolerance for this,” Lopez added before further chastising Bocanegra. “How can you be making laws when you can’t control yourself?”
Lopez said that she brought these allegations to light during last year’s election, but without enough campaign funds she was unable to make people aware of Bocanegra’s actions, rumors of which were already swirling when he first ran for the Assembly in 2012.
In fact, Lopez said, two of her daughters were interns for Bocanegra soon after he was elected in 2012.
“When I heard about it, I didn’t feel comfortable about them working in his office and I pulled them out,” Lopez said.
The former Assembly-member said when she got to Sacramento even she, as an elected official, tried to stay away from the afterwork parties to avoid falling into problems.
“I didn’t feel safe because there were a lot of alcohol and drugs,” she said. “In those instances, it’s very easy to cross the line, and I felt as a community leader I couldn’t put myself at that level.”
But she saw plenty of especially young women speak about problems.
“These young women in those offices have to contend with that because if they speak up, they can fire them. And it’s the minimum what (the legislators) they will do to them. There are no consequences,” Lopez said.
She doesn’t mince words for her political rival.
“If he (Bocanegra) had a little bit of shame, he would resign, but of course he won’t do it. For these men, first there’s the power and the money and then their principles and values,” Lopez said.
High Cost to Taxpayers
The allegations can also be costly for taxpayers.
The Sacramento Bee reported that over the past 20 years, the state Legislature has paid more than $850,000 to resolve five allegations of sexual harassment.
Earlier this year, the Assembly paid $100,000 to resolve a lawsuit against Palmdale Assemblymember Steve Fox (D-Antelope Valley), after one of his employees accused him of exposing himself, among other things.
Nancy Finnegan, Fox’s former legislative director, said that she once went to take some documents to Fox’s office, and when Fox opened his door he was naked from the waist down.
The Sacramento Police Department is also investigating the allegations against Mathis. No women have publicly accused Mathis of sexual harassment or assault.