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Lawmaker at #MeToo's Forefront Accused of Sexual Harassment

A California state assemblywoman and prominent voice in the fight against sexual harassment in Sacramento is now facing allegations that she harassed and groped a legislative staffer.

By Jill Tucker and Melody Gutierrez

A California state assemblywoman and prominent voice in the fight against sexual harassment in Sacramento is now facing allegations that she harassed and groped a legislative staffer.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, allegedly cornered Daniel Fierro, a staffer for Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, after an Assembly softball game in 2014, according to a story first reported by Politico on Thursday.

Fierro confirmed the account of the encounter to The Chronicle, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said an outside firm is investigating the allegations for the Assembly.

Fierro told The Chronicle that he was alone in the dugout at the Sacramento park when Garcia walked in. She was clearly inebriated, slurring her words, swaying.

As they talked she put her hand on his forearm, then moved her hand to his upper back and started stroking him lightly, he said.

"I felt uncomfortable, but not alarmed yet," he said. "At some point she dropped her hand down to my butt and squeezed it."

He spun around and moved to leave when "she reached down for my crotch and very briefly made contact."

Fierro, then 24, said he felt uncomfortable, but didn't equate the actions with assault. He didn't report it.

But as Garcia became one of the faces of the #MeToo movement in Sacramento, and was featured as one of the Silence Breakers in Time magazine's persons of the year, he said he "knew it was hypocritical."

Garcia, 40, is chair of the California Legislative Women's Caucus, which has been vocal in pushing for lawmakers facing accusations to take a leave of absence while investigations are completed. The Caucus has also urged for the release of documents related to sexual harassment investigations. Garcia was a co-author of a bill granting whistle-blower protections to legislative staff, a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday.

In a statement Thursday, Garcia said she did attend the 2014 softball game, but had "zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values."

Now a communications consultant in Cerritos, Fierro said he didn't report the incident at the time, but mentioned the encounter to Calderon, his former boss late last year. The assemblyman reported it to the Rules Committee in January.

"It was then the Committee's job to determine the appropriate next steps," Calderon said, in an emailed statement. "Every allegation must be taken seriously and once I became aware of Danny's story, I felt that I had an obligation to report it."

Fierro said outside counsel, working on behalf of the Rules Committee, questioned him a week ago about the incident.

"I trust that while the investigation proceeds, Assemblymember Garcia will respond appropriately and in a way that fortifies the Legislature's effort to create a new climate," Rendon said in a statement. "As in other cases, while the investigation moves forward, I am also asking Assembly Human Resources to reach out to Assemblymember Garcia's staff to ensure they feel safe in their work environment."

Garcia previously has demanded swift action against at least one fellow lawmaker accused of sexual harassment. She called on Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando Valley, to resign after he faced allegations of sexual misconduct last year. Bocanegra eventually did, along with Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Encino, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, remains on paid leave pending an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations. All three denied wrongdoing.

In Garcia's case, Fierro reportedly was not the only one to experience harassment by her. The Politico report also included an account by an unnamed lobbyist who said Garcia cornered him at a fundraiser, sexually propositioned him and grabbed his crotch.

The Politico story Thursday prompted strong responses from legislators and those affiliated with the #MeToo movement.

"We are concerned about these reports and they need to be investigated thoroughly, without a delay," the group We Said Enough, which sparked the movement against sexual harassment in the Capitol, said in a statement. "The legislature must establish a confidential reporting mechanism, with due process for accusers and the accused, early intervention and restoration for the entire community."

State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, said she would "in the very near future" be asking members of the legislative Women's Caucus to address Garcia's fate as the caucus' chair.

"Anyone proven to have sexually harassed or assaulted another person, regardless of their gender, should be held accountable for their actions," Leyva said. "I commit to continue fighting to rid the Capitol and our state of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment, assault, and overall disrespect."

Garcia said she would fully cooperate with any inquiry.

"Every complaint about sexual harassment should be taken seriously and I will participate fully in any investigation that takes place," she said in a statement. "The details of these claims have never been brought to my attention until today."

Fierro said he fears the allegations could undermine efforts to combat sexual harassment.

"The #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful, important and necessary," he said. "The substance of what Cristina has said on these issues is absolutely legitimate.

"I just hope there is a broader discussion about what's appropriate and what's safe in the workplace."

(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle


Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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