By Casey Tolan and Katy Murphy
As more cases of sexual harassment in the Capitol come to light -- intensifying concerns over how such allegations are handled -- the state Senate on Sunday night announced an extraordinary change in protocol: It will no longer police itself.
The Senate Rules Committee will stop handling complaints of sexual harassment -- including pending cases -- effective immediately, its members said. Instead, the committee, together with the Senate Democratic Women's Caucus, will hire an outside legal team to conduct investigations and recommend discipline.
"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," said a statement released by the committee. "While -- at the discretion of victims and whistleblowers -- names and details might be redacted, the general findings will be made public."
Over the weekend, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León moved out of a Sacramento apartment he shared with Sen. Tony Mendoza on Saturday, the same day the Sacramento Bee story published a story in which a former female intern publicly accused Mendoza of inappropriate behavior toward her when she was 19.
Mendoza had faced accusations last week that he repeatedly invited another young female intern home with him earlier this year -- allegations de León has said he knew nothing about, despite his position as the leader of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which received the complaint.
Jennifer Kwart, who once worked as an intern in Mendoza's Los Angeles-area office, told the Bee that Mendoza took her to his hotel room during a Democratic Party convention in San Jose in 2008 when she was 19. Mendoza, who was then 38 and a member of the Assembly, picked her up from the airport, drove her to his hotel and had drinks with her from the hotel mini-bar, she said.
Kwart said Mendoza then asked her personal questions about her ex-boyfriends and her taste in men. She said that she believed Mendoza implied he wanted to have sex with her. She avoided him and left the convention as soon as possible, she said.
"Then and now, I feel like I was very trapped," she told the newspaper.
A spokesperson for Mendoza, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, told the Bee that Kwart's recounting of events was "completely false."
Kwart went public with her story after the Bee first reported other allegations against Mendoza. A lawyer for a fired Senate staffer told Capital Public Radio on Friday that her client and two other Mendoza aides were terminated after reporting to Senate officials that Mendoza over the summer had repeatedly invited a 23-year-old intern in his office to visit him at night at the Sacramento apartment he shared with de León. He also once invited her to spend the night at his Yolo County resort hotel room, the lawyer said.
Senate officials have said an investigation is underway and have strongly denied that the staffers' reports had to do with their being fired.
"If I ever communicated or miscommunicated anything that made an employee feel uncomfortable, I apologize," Mendoza said in a statement to the Bay Area News Group on Thursday.
The reports about Mendoza had some in Sacramento wondering how de León -- who chairs the Senate committee that investigates allegations of sexual harassment -- could have been unaware of the reports and investigation into his roommate.
A de León spokesman confirmed Sunday that the Senate leader had moved out of the apartment that he shared with Mendoza during the week. He did not provide more information.
Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who Kwart now works for, said in a Facebook post Saturday that "with recent allegations and continued denials, I have serious doubts about whether (Mendoza) should continue to serve in public office."
The scrutiny on sexual harassment in Sacramento has exploded since more than 100 women wrote an open letter last month decrying a culture of harassment in the Capitol.
De León said his office has asked the women's caucus for further recommendations on "new protections that will encourage those who have been victims or witnesses of harassment to come forward and report -- and provide counsel and assistance throughout the reporting process."
In a statement issued by de León's office, the women's caucus said: "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."
Last month, de León responded to the "We Said Enough" letter by hiring the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, which specialize in investigations into workplace harassment, to launch a probe into incidents that emerged in the media in recent weeks. At the same time, the Senate said it also hired CPS HR Consulting to review its harassment, discrimination and retaliation policies and practices.
(c)2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)