Listen to Ben Adler's interview with Asm. Laura Friedman, the chair of the Joint Committee on Rules Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response, above.
The California Legislature is unveiling a sweeping new overhaul of how it would investigate sexual harassment complaints against everyone from lawmakers to interns that comes after accusations leveled against several lawmakers as part of the “Me Too” movement.
It includes new training intended to encourage immediate reporting of even minor incidents in hopes of preventing inappropriate behavior from becoming worse, an investigative unit housed in the Legislative Counsel’s office, and a panel of outside experts that will determine whether allegations are substantiated and make recommendations on potential consequences.
“This is a huge step. It’s huge. And it’s going to change at every level,” said Asm. Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), who chaired the joint Senate-Assembly subcommittee charged with creating a single, shared process for the two houses to investigate complaints. “This is all a sea change in terms of how this building is operated.”
Adama Iwu, who founded the “We Said Enough” effort that launched the Me Too movement at the Capitol, said she wanted to see the final language of the proposal, but offered early praise after hearing a description of the new process.
“I continue to be encouraged by the fact that the Legislature is taking this seriously,” she said. “This sounds like California is taking steps to figure [a fair process] out and really address some of these issues that have been chronic and systemic for people in the Capitol community.”
The new proposal starts, she said, with a comprehensive training program intended both to decrease the chances of victims suffering through months of harassment and to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits.
Friedman said the new rules will help prevent “the one joke that’s against a protected class, the one comment, the one touch that somebody feels is inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable.”
She added that there will be training to make sure everyone understands that leadership wants people to report these incidents. “Not because we’re going to fire people or be punitive,” Friedman said, “but because we want to intervene and give people the training and the counseling that they need.”
When a complaint is made, a new “Independent Workplace Conduct Unit” will determine whether the matter falls under its jurisdiction or should be referred to Senate or Assembly human resources.
The unit will be housed in the Legislative Counsel’s office, which provides bill-writing and legal representation for both the Senate and Assembly. Its charge will be to investigate and respond to sexual harassment complaints, as well as inappropriate conduct toward others that affects a protected class — such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability.
The unit will be comprised of trained investigators who will conduct interviews and gather evidence. It have the option of contracting with an outside investigator for complaints against lawmakers and senior staff.
It will not, however, make factual findings. Instead, that will be done by an independent panel of outside experts — “longtime employment law attorneys, retired civil justices who know employment law, that sort of person,” according to Friedman.
The panel will meet with immediate supervisors who might have additional information pertaining to the investigation. And then it will determine findings and make recommendations.
However, it will then be up to whichever chamber employs the subject of the complaint — the Senate or the Assembly — to accept or reject the panel’s recommendations and decide on the appropriate response.
“They can’t make their own determination about whether there was a violation. The panel will make that decision, and what type of violation it is,” Friedman said. “They can decide whether or not to accept the recommendation of the panel. I anticipate that they will usually accept it.”
If the Senate or Assembly decides against the panel’s recommendation, it must document its reasons.
Friedman said the process will be the same for both houses and in all cases — those of lawmakers, staff, and members of the public, such as lobbyists.
Under the proposal, the Legislature would maintain its current policy of only releasing documents when complaints are substantiated against lawmakers or senior staff. In those cases, only the original complaint and the disciplinary letter are released.
That means if, under the new system, the Senate or Assembly overturns the outside panel’s recommendations, the house’s rationale for its reversal would not be made public.
Friedman, however, said the Assembly speaker or Senate president pro tem would have the option of releasing that document in cases involving lawmakers.
“Right now, they don’t have to do that,” she said. “But they could very well decide to make the recommendation public, and to explain why they’re taking whatever action they’re taking.”
The new process will be discussed at a subcommittee hearing Monday morning and finalized over the next few weeks. But it likely won’t take effect until next year, because it will take time to hire investigators and create the outside panel of experts.