Amid Harassment Allegations, California Lawmaker Resigns

by | February 23, 2018

By Taryn Luna

Sen. Tony Mendoza resigned from office Thursday as his colleagues considered an unprecedented vote to expel him.

His decision came days after the Senate publicly released the findings of a two-month investigation that concluded Mendoza, D-Artesia, "more likely than not" engaged in a pattern of unwanted advances and sexually suggested behavior toward six women, including four subordinates, over the last decade.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León drafted Senate Resolution 85, which cited the house's zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy and the results of the investigation as grounds to expel Mendoza, for a vote on the floor on Thursday after Republicans and Democrats met privately to discuss action against Mendoza. No lawmaker has ever been suspended or expelled for sexual harassment in California state history.

As closed-door meetings dragged on, Mendoza resigned.

"I shall resign my position as Senator with immediate effect as it is clear that Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León will not rest until he has my head on a platter to convince the Me Too Movement of his 'sincerity' in supporting the Me Too cause," Mendoza wrote in a resignation letter he sent his colleagues on Thursday.

The Bee reported sexual misconduct and harassment allegations against Mendoza last fall involving three former employees over the last 10 years.

Sources alleged that Mendoza made unwanted advances on a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his office and twice invited her to his home to go over her resume for a full-time position last year. The Senate investigation found that he likely had no intention of offering her the position.

A second woman came forward and alleged that Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward her when she attended the 2008 California Democratic Party state convention at the invitation of his district office. Jennifer Kwart, then 19, alleges that Mendoza picked her up from the airport alone and drove her back to the hotel suite with an adjoining room, where he suggested they from the mini-bar in the common area of the suite. His comments made her feel uncomfortable and she said she faked a family emergency to book an early flight home.

A third woman, Haley Myers, came forward days later and said she complained to human resources in the Assembly in 2010 that Mendoza engaged in behavior that she considers sexual harassment when she worked as a legislative aide for him in Sacramento.

The Senate responded by hiring two law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Van Dermyden Maddux, to investigate the allegations against Mendoza and all future complaints involving lawmakers and staff members, which were previously handled by employees of the Senate Rules Committee.

The investigation, which wrapped up last week, concluded that Mendoza "more likely than not" engaged in "unwanted flirtatious or sexually suggestive behavior" toward the three women The Bee wrote about and three others since 2007. Investigators found that Mendoza likely invited an employee to share a room with him in Hawaii in 2007, invited home a different fellow in another legislator's office and behaved inappropriately toward a lobbyist in 2015.

"Colleagues it's my duty as president of this body to say that we owe every employee that basic guarantee that we as an institution will not tolerate harassment nor sweep it under the rug when it is discovered," de León said on the floor in announcing the resignation. "We owe every employee a complete and full investigation into any violation of our zero tolerance harassment policy. Our independent team did just that."

Mendoza joins Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, both Democrats from Los Angeles, who resigned from office in light of sexual harassment and assault allegations against them last year. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, accused of groping a legislative employee, immediately took a leave of absence this year until her investigation concludes.

Unlike the others, Mendoza did not go away without a fight.

Mendoza has criticized the investigation as an "unfair and secret" violation of his civil rights and due process and filed a lawsuit against the house last week. He also initially declined de León's request to take a voluntary leave of absence in December. He later complied with demands from his caucus to temporarily step down when the Legislature returned to Sacramento after winter break.

Before his pledged return on Feb. 1, the Senate adopted a new rule that allowed the Rules Committee to extend Mendoza's leave of absence for 60 days without his consent. Despite his leave, Mendoza hosted a boat tour for high school students and advertised for spring interns. At one point, he returned to work at the Capitol and was told to go home.

Mendoza's resignation spared lawmakers from having to take a difficult vote.

An expulsion would have marked the first time either house has rejected a member since 1905 when four lawmakers were permanently removed from office for accepting bribes, according to Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library.

Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, told reporters that the 13-member Republican caucus stood united in calling for a suspension through the election. It's unclear how they would have voted on the resolution to expel Mendoza. Some Democrats questioned whether the charges against Mendoza warranted his rejection from the house.

"Quite frankly it's about time and really overdue," said Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said of Mendoza's resignation. "The Mendoza mess has brought to light all of the flaws of our sexual harassment policies but hopefully will lead us to some resolution."

Vidak introduced a resolution in January to expel Mendoza. He declined to say why he joined his Republican colleagues with a scaled back request to suspend Mendoza on Thursday.

The Senate and Assembly have been navigating through uncharted territory since the "Me Too" movement last year raised questions about the Legislature's secretive process to resolve sexual harassment reports against lawmakers and staff members.

In an effort to address a perceived lack of transparency, both houses earlier this month released heavily redacted records of substantiated sexual harassment claims against state legislators and senior staff members over the last 10 years. None of the four sitting legislators named in the files -- Mendoza; Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach; Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey and Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles -- were disciplined beyond a verbal warning.

Neither house had detailed policies that articulated a scale to determine how different offenses should be treated and each incident was handled on a case-by-case basis by human resources employees or investigated by outside law firms.

A bi-partisan panel of legislators is now developing sexual harassment polices that would apply to both houses. Until that process concludes, each house is left to decide the appropriate recourse for the accused.

De León pushed for the expulsion and told colleagues the Senate should not tolerate "a pattern of behavior that violates our harassment standards."

"We take no joy in a colleague's resignation, but this was clearly the right and just outcome for this Senate, our employees and the taxpayers we serve," de León and his successor, Sen. Toni Atkins, said in a joint statement.

De León, Sen. Connie Leyva and Atkins, who will take over as pro tem next month, voted to move the resolution to expel Mendoza from the Rules Committee to the floor for a vote on Thursday. Republicans Tom Berryhill and Anthony Cannella did not vote.

"This is serious and our responsibility is to make sure that we protect the staff in this building," Atkins said.

In his resignation letter, Mendoza left open the possibility that he may run for re-election. Mendoza's district is considered a relatively safe seat for Democrats and he's sitting on $650,000 in his campaign account.

"I intend to canvass my district to determine my candidacy for the Senate this year," Mendoza wrote.

He added that he will continue to pursue his lawsuit against the Senate.

"Though the summarized findings of the secret investigation do not comport with my recollection or perception of the events describe, I am immensely sorry if my words or actions ever made anyone feel uncomfortable," he wrote.

(c)2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)