The California Legislature spent nearly $2 million last year investigating sexual harassment accusations involving lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists, and received 15 new allegations — including four against state senators and two separate complaints against an Assembly member.
This newly released data, obtained by CapRadio as part of a Legislative Open Records Act request, is from 2018 and the first month of 2019. The response includes no names, which is consistent with the same data released in the past.
But CapRadio’s request for data on all allegations made since January has so far been denied.
That means these newly released details about sexual harassment at the state Capitol will be the last ones the public ever sees — unless the Legislature chooses to disclose information from its newly formed, joint Senate-Assembly Workplace Conduct Unit.
The Senate and Assembly had previously released data on sexual harassment accusations in February 2018, which covered the years 2006 through 2017. CapRadio also sought that data for all allegations made since the Workplace Conduct Unit’s inception in February.
Since the Legislature is declining to release any information about the WCU, “it’s kind of a black box right now,” said Samantha Corbin, a Sacramento lobbyist who helped mobilize women as part of the Me Too movement in 2017 and currently serves as executive director for the advocacy group We Said Enough. “We’re not really sure if in fact it’s working, or how it’s working.”
Mike Letizia, who runs a Stockton-based human-resources consulting firm and leads training courses on behalf of the California chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said the Legislature will “absolutely” need to report data on allegations in a “reasonable amount of time.”
“And I would think that a reasonable amount of time be within a 12 month period,” he said, “so that we understand how those efforts are succeeding or not succeeding.”
Letizia added that the Legislature will want to review the data, too, to evaluate whether their initiatives are having an impact. If they’re not, it might be time for “some different approaches.”
“The only way we can tell whether something is successful or not is measuring the results,” he told CapRadio after reviewing the Legislature’s responses to the records requests. “If we don’t ever find out results, then it’s an empty process.”
In separate letters responding to CapRadio’s records request for data from the WCU era, the two chambers deflected to the Legislative Counsel’s office, which in turn argued the information was exempt under both public records law and attorney-client privilege.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean current and future allegations will never see the light of day.
In a joint statement, Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras and Assembly Chief Administrative Officer Debra Gravert said they expect their chambers and the WCU to have “on-going discussions” about possible “additional updates that further the legislature’s commitment to cultural change.”
They wrote that the Legislature has “committed to changing the overall culture in the Capitol and providing a workplace that values respect, civility and diversity. We can only succeed in that effort by maintaining a system that operates with a careful balance between the critical values of transparency and confidentiality.”
Corbin remains skeptical. “We don’t know how many cases they’re handling [or] what the resolution of those cases are,” she said. “And certainly while we don’t have any reason to believe that they’re not doing a great job for victims who bring forward complaints, we have also no reason to believe they are.”
The WCU was created after the Me Too and We Said Enough movements reverberated through the state Capitol starting in the fall of 2017. Lawmakers acknowledged the need for cultural change at the state Capitol after sexual harassment allegations forced several of their colleagues to resign.
The nine Senate allegations in 2018 were the most in any year since 2006, the first year the Legislature has made data available. The six Assembly allegations last year, on the other hand, represented a sharp drop from the 26 in 2017.
Four Senate and two Assembly staffers faced allegations in 2018. The Assembly also reported two allegations against people who were neither lawmakers nor staff, such as lobbyists; the Senate reported one such allegation in 2018. And there were two staff changes in the Senate last year, along with one in the Assembly.
As first reported by the Associated Press, the two chambers reported spending a combined $1.84 million on outside legal costs for the investigations from January 1, 2018, through January 31, 2019.
Contreras and Gravert reiterated in their statement that under the new joint Senate-Assembly system, the two chambers will continue to release substantiated findings against lawmakers or senior staff.
The WCU has so far released only one substantiated investigation against a lawmaker or senior staffer: Hannah Cho, who two women accused of making inappropriate comments while she was district director for Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles. Cho had resigned her position before the investigation was released.
The Legislature has always maintained it is not obligated by the Legislative Open Records Act to provide any information about sexual harassment allegations. For years, the Senate and Assembly quietly settled complaints and lawsuits, sometimes with large payments coupled with nondisclosure agreements that included bans on re-employment.
But by February 2018, public pressure had mounted enough to force legislative leaders to reverse course. The Senate and Assembly released 12 years of substantiated findings against sitting lawmakers and senior staff, and charts that listed total numbers of allegations, staff changes and costs paid to outside lawyers to investigate the allegations.
At the time, each chamber said in a letter accompanying its disclosures that it did not need to release the information but was doing so “to facilitate open discourse concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The two houses, which typically operate with fierce independence from each other, also held a series of joint hearings to seek out a new system for investigating sexual harassment allegations that was based on best practices and could regain the trust of the Capitol community and the public.
The hearings led to the creation of the WCU in the Legislative Counsel’s office, which provides bill-writing and legal representation for both the Senate and Assembly.
The WCU now conducts investigations into sexual harassment allegations. A panel of outside experts determines whether allegations are substantiated and makes recommendations on potential consequences. But each house retains the discretion to decide on any discipline when allegations are substantiated.
The newly released Senate and Assembly letters reiterate that they are providing the information from January 2018 through January 2019 “as a courtesy and because we share the public’s concern regarding this issue.”
The Senate added a further statement in its letter: “We believe it is important to recognize that changing decades of culture isn’t going to happen overnight and it isn’t going to happen without a cost.” It vowed that its work to prevent sexual harassment will be done “both cost-effectively and without cutting corners.”
Now, by declining to release data about allegations and staff changes under the WCU — at least for the time being — legislative leaders have decided to change course once again.
“Certainly, we need to know how many complaints have been received,” Corbin said, adding that the Legislature should also disclose the status and merit of investigations, and how many were substantiated.
She also wants the Legislature to disclose how much taxpayer dollars were spent on any settlements and outside lawyers.
Letizia said he understands the Legislature’s concerns about balancing transparency and confidentiality. In fact, he said he’s uneasy about one piece of the data that’s been released, in which individuals who’ve faced multiple allegations have been labeled as “Person A” or “Person B,” because that could make them identifiable.
But he argues that the reporting statistics are “pretty much the only way” to measure the Legislature’s efforts to create a safer workplace.
“Simply putting together a unit is not going to necessarily change culture,” he said.
Follow us for more stories like this
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.