Embattled state Senator Tony Mendoza, under investigation after being accused of sexual harassment against a female student Fellow and a former staffer, announced this evening that he’ll temporarily vacate his office.
"I have decided that I will take a leave of absence for this month of January," the lawmaker said on the Senate floor during the body’s first day in session.
His announcement came after nearly four hours of private debate among Senate Democrats, while members of Mendoza’s family sat in the chamber gallery.A former Mendoza staffer also has the green light to sue.
Adriana Ruelas filed a formal complaint with the Department of Fair Employment & Housing against the lawmaker, alleging harassment, retaliation and more.
She says she was harassed, discriminated against and retaliated against by Mendoza after she reported the harassment of a young female Fellow in his office.
In the complaint, she says former Mendoza chief of staff Eusevio Padilla had told Senate human resources director Jeannie Oropeza about the lawmaker’s misconduct from February through August of last year.
According to the complaint, Ruelas, Padilla and another Mendoza staffer, scheduler Stacey Brown, met with Oropeza last September and provided details to "back their claims of Mendoza's inappropriate and harassing behavior toward the Senate Fellow.” The complaint says Oropeza responded with termination letters for all three.
It further alleges that statements from Mendoza's office to Capital Public Radio, which were given after the firing of the trio, qualify as disparaging and would violate a non-disclosure agreement signed by Ruelas and Secretary of the Senate Danny Alvarez. The statements say the staff members were fired for performance reasons.
The submission of a complaint to the DFEH is considered a precursor to litigation. Ruelas has a year to bring a civil lawsuit against Mendoza, Alvarez, Oropeza and the Senate.
The complaint also says former Mendoza communications director Timothy Kirkconnell was fired in retaliation, for uncovering and questioning the felony record of district director Ana Perez.
Kirkconnell filed a formal complaint against Perez last summer — and was fired in August.
Ruelas’ complaint also provides details about conversations with the student Fellow, who Mendoza allegedly made inappropriate sexual advances toward last year. Ruelas says the young woman asked for advice after Mendoza invited her multiple times on trips, to his hotel room and to his home.
Mendoza is already the subject of a Senate investigation by two outside law firms. The lawmaker said he will leave the Senate at the urging of colleagues so that the investigation can be completed.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion about everything that’s been going on, and I had some feedback with my colleagues, the Democrats, on the Senate side,” Mendoza said this evening. “I do appreciate their feedback, and they feel it’s better if I just step back a little bit.”
However, a little more than an hour after his speech, Mendoza released a statement with a much different tone.
"I am deeply disappointed that I was forced into this action without any due process, which is counter to the very essence of two significant pillars of our American society…. fairness and justice," he said.
Previously, in response to Republican state Senator Andy Vidak's promise to introduce a bill to expel Mendoza, he issued a statement that the allegations "do not involve any form of touching or even suggest inappropriate bodily contact,” and that he has “been accused at most of allegedly making someone ‘feel’ uncomfortable."
Mendoza also called for an audit of the Senate and Assembly's Human Resources procedures that address harassment complaints.
The state auditor responded by saying such an audit is not permitted under California law.
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