SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California Sen. Tony Mendoza resisted calls Thursday from Senate leader Kevin de Leon, his former roommate, to take a leave of absence until an investigation is completed into his alleged sexual misconduct.
“I was not appointed to the position I hold but was elected by the voters in my district,” Mendoza said in a statement. “The Senate owes them an opportunity to hear the truth. I assure them that I will vigorously defend myself to clear my name.”
Mendoza’s defiance could set up a showdown when lawmakers return in January, with Republican Sen. Andy Vidak promising to offer a resolution to expel him. Mendoza is accused of behaving inappropriately toward three young women who worked for him, including offering one alcohol when she was underage and inviting another to the Sacramento home he, until recently, shared with de Leon. De Leon said he didn’t know about any of the allegations.
De Leon, in the midst of a campaign against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, called on Mendoza to temporarily step aside as he announced the state Senate’s hiring of two law firms to handle all sexual harassment complaints made against senators and their staff for the next two years. The firms are Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Van Dermyden Maddux.
De Leon also promised the Senate will release within 30 days more details of which lawmakers have faced sexual harassment complaints and investigations.
The Senate’s moves come almost two months after nearly 150 women who work in and around the Capitol released an open letter decrying a culture of pervasive sexual harassment. Two Assembly Democrats - Matt Dababneh and Raul Bocangera - have already been forced out.
The outside investigation into allegations against Mendoza will be completed early next year, de Leon said. He did not say what the Senate will do if Mendoza does not take a leave.
The law firms will also look into allegations that Sen. Bob Hertzberg hugged female colleagues inappropriately. But de Leon said he does not think Hertzberg, who is known for hugging, should step aside.
Organizers of the mid-October letter, who now have a group called “We Said Enough,” criticized de Leon’s actions as “woefully inadequate” and said the Senate should work hand-in-hand with the Assembly rather than going at it alone.
“The approach does not reflect any kind of independent investigation,” said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and the group’s co-founder. “An attorney hired by the Legislature is still subject to attorney-client privilege.”
Asked by a reporter, de Leon did not say if he would waive or narrow that attorney-client privilege to ensure transparency about the firm’s investigations.
The newly hired lawyers said their mission is one of independent fact-finding, not protecting the Legislature. The two firms are setting up a hotline for people who have witnessed or been the subjects of harassment to report the behavior.
“Our job is to do a neutral investigation and the facts lead us where they lead us,” said Deborah Maddux, the lead attorney for Van Dermyden Maddux.
Benjamin Wagner, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, is leading the investigation for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Attorneys at the firm have given nearly $17,000 in campaign contributions to six Senate candidates, the Sacramento Bee reported. Wagner said neither he nor anyone on his team has donated to senators and that the firm will be impartial.
De Leon also announced a partnership with WEAVE, a Sacramento-based rape crisis center, to provide counseling to victims of harassment. The Assembly said it is also working to establish an independent counseling service.
Beth Hassett, executive director for WEAVE, applauded the Senate effort as “unprecedented” and “victims-centered.” The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault also supported the efforts.
“Californians can take pride in the commitment to creating equity and safety in the work place that is being demonstrated here today,” Hassett said.
Also on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported fresh accusations of misconduct against Dababneh, the Assemblyman who is resigning effective Jan. 1.
Nancy Miret told The Times she filed a police report alleging Dababneh had nonconsensual sex with her in 2013, when he was running for a seat in the Legislature. Dababneh denied her allegation.
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