More than 300 women who work in and around the California Capitol are calling out a culture where they say sexual harassment and assault are pervasive, power is the currency, and the rules are murky.
With an open letter, a website, and the #WeSaidEnough hashtag, a bipartisan mix of current and former legislators, staff members, lobbyists, and consultants said they want stronger enforcement of existing rules and independent review of workplace claims. Several of the women told Bloomberg Law that the groping, crude comments, and threats they’ve experienced or witnessed are magnified because the Legislature has exempted itself from key rules that apply to most other workplaces.
The women said they see parallels between the work environment in California politics and Hollywood in the wake of the flood of accusations against former movie executive Harvey Weinstein.
“You’re told: Don’t piss off that rich lobbyist who could be harming you,” Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and a signatory to the letter, told Bloomberg Law.
“As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different,” the letter said. “It has not.”
Like Hollywood, the long, high-stakes days at the Capitol and constant social events such as cocktail receptions and out-of-town golf tournaments put people with formal and informal work relationships in uncertain work environments. Men in positions of power as lawmakers, staff members, or lobbyists exploit the power imbalance in those situations, several of the women said.
The list of 148 women who signed the letter before it was released Oct. 17 grew to more than 300 by Oct. 20, Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist with Corbin and Kaiser and an organizer of the effort, told Bloomberg Law.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) said the letter shows sexual harassment is “unfortunately prevalent” in the Capitol. His wife, Annie Lam, signed the letter as well. She is a political consultant and former staff member in the Assembly.
The Assembly will focus on the issues the letter raises through the Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response, and the chamber will reach out to employees to ensure they feel comfortable bringing complaints forward, Rendon said in a written statement.
“Our commitment to preventing harassment is profound, we will take all complaints brought to us seriously, and we will ensure there is no retaliation of any kind,” he said.
Both houses of the California Legislature have ethics rules and conduct codes meant to set a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and give employees a way to file complaints against those who abuse them, representatives of the Assembly and Senate told Bloomberg Law.
Yet the rules that are in place mean little in practice, a lawyer who has represented six clients in lawsuits against the Assembly or Senate told Bloomberg Law. She advises her clients to avoid internal complaints and seek outside help because she’s seen immediate retaliation when people complain internally.
“The rules only have as much impact as the people who are going to enforce them,” Mary-Alice Coleman, an attorney in Davis, Calif., said. “The maximum intimidation tactics they use scare people off and scare lawyers off.”
For example, Coleman represents a former employee of the state legislature who complained that her boss, former Assemblyman Steve Fox (D), exposed himself to her and engaged in other inappropriate behavior toward her and other employees.
The former employee, Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, filed a lawsuit in April 2014 after taking her complaints to her superiors and being rebuffed, Coleman said. Finnigan reached a settlement for $100,000 in April 2017. That amount doesn’t include what the legislature spent fighting her claims for four years, Coleman said.
An outside attorney representing Fox and the Assembly, and Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment on the case Oct. 20.
Coleman and Mariko Yoshihara, the legislative counsel for the California Employment Lawyers Association, told Bloomberg Law the Legislature’s employees are at will, giving them fewer protections than other public sector workers who fall under civil service rules or collective bargaining agreements. Although the California Fair Employment and Housing Act applies to the Legislature, many parts of the California Labor Code don’t and it is difficult to know which parts of it do.
While lawmakers have enacted whistleblower protection laws that apply to government employees for the state, counties, courts, and universities, they have rejected attempts to apply whistleblower protections under the Capitol dome, they said.
“Almost every other public employee is protected, but they aren’t,” Coleman said.
Yoshihara, who signed the letter, also pointed to a lack of training about sexual harassment and abuse. Lobbyists must receive training to register with the state, but that training focuses on the illegality of a financial quid pro quo such as using campaign contributions or gifts to influence a legislator.
Margaret Gladstein, a partner in the lobbying firm Capitol Advocacy and a former legislative staff member who signed the letter, said lobbyists are told to go to the sergeants-at-arms—the police officers of the Legislature—with harassment complaints.
“I’m not comfortable going to an entity managed and controlled by the Legislature,” she said.
The women said the Legislature should have an inspector general or similar outside body that handles complaints. Otherwise, filing a complaint in either house “is a direct pipeline to the speaker or the pro tem,” Coleman said, referring to the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tempore.
California lawmakers should look to policies and practices at corporations, nonprofits, and other legislatures that are doing a better job than they are, Pelosi said.
Lobbyists, activists, and others who aren’t employees of the Legislature have a murkier path when they have complaints. Representatives of the Senate and Assembly each said their policies cover harassment that occurs on the Capitol premises in Sacramento regardless of who it involves. Rules for off-site events aren’t as clear.
“It’s clearly within the Assembly’s purview to address issues that occur on the premises, but we have, and will continue to investigate complaints that have a nexus to the work environment, but did not occur on the premises,” Gravert told Bloomberg Law in an email. “These issues are fact specific and so our recommendation is to make a complaint so we can determine if the Assembly has jurisdiction to address it.”
If the Assembly doesn’t have jurisdiction, the committee will help identify the correct venue for a complaint, Gravert said.
Gravert said the Assembly’s zero tolerance standard is stronger than standards of conduct in state and federal law. Anyone with a complaint should contact her, a member of the committee, or the Assembly human resources director, she said.
Similarly, the Senate’s policy is one of zero tolerance. The Senate Ethics Committee also provides workplace training that includes a brief module on sexual harassment.
“Every reported complaint of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation, shall be investigated thoroughly, promptly and in accordance with the law and the Senate’s high standards of fairness and impartiality,” the policy states.
A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon (D) couldn’t say immediately whether the policy applies to incidents off the Capitol grounds. He also was unable to say if the Senate has filled an ombudsperson position created in 2014 in the wake of the indictments of three senators for ethics violations unrelated to harassment.
According to a 2014 memo outlining changes to the Senate rules, the ombudsperson position was created “to act as an independent and confidential avenue for Senators, officers, and employees to report and discuss issues related to possible unethical conduct.”
Christy Bouma, owner of lobbying firm Capitol Connection and president of a trade association for lobbyists called the Institute of Governmental Advocates, told Bloomberg Law she sees two options when harassment occurs. She signed the letter as well.
“We can either use our voices” to call out harassment “or we can engage in general litigation,” she said. Like others interviewed by Bloomberg Law, she said she regrets that she hasn’t spoken up when she has seen abuses.
The IGA’s own code of conduct doesn’t reference harassment, and Bouma said she is considering raising the issue with the group’s board of directors.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D), who signed the letter, told Bloomberg Law she will dig into the policies, processes, and frequency of complaints in her new role as chair of the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response.
She said she didn’t know the subcommittee existed until Rendon appointed her to chair it two weeks ago. It was created in June, a spokesman for Rendon said.
Friedman said she hasn’t seen cases or complaints come before her as a member of the full Rules Committee since she began her first term in the Assembly in December 2016.
“Even if individual claims aren’t reported out to the world, staff should know what the process is,” she said. It’s unclear to her who should receive complaints, who investigates them, and how the findings are handled, she said.
So far, the women who signed their names to the open letter haven’t made public claims of harassment against specific men. Adama Iwu, who spearheaded the letter, told Bloomberg Law she is less interested in removing a few violators from their positions than she is in ending the harassment to begin with.
“I’m tired of talking about what to do after it happens,” Iwu, senior director of state and local government relations for Visa Inc., said. “Why don’t we prevent this from happening? Why can’t women just feel safe?”
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Mahoney in Sacramento, Calif. at LMahoney@bna.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at email@example.com
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