California’s state Senate has ordered an independent investigation into allegations of workplace sexual misconduct in the state Capitol, one week after more than 140 women working in state politics spoke out about the “dehumanizing” treatment they’ve faced. The Assembly, meanwhile, intends to hold public hearings on the claims.
Kevin de León, the state Senate president pro tem, said Monday that the chamber has hired two outside firms to look into allegations that were detailed in an open letter published last week by The Los Angeles Times. The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, a San Francisco firm that specializes in workplace investigations, will look into the sexual misconduct allegations, and CPS HR Consulting will review the state Senate’s policies concerning harassment and other issues.
“There’s always more employers can do to protect their employees,” de León said in a statement. “Everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior and I applaud the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices heard.”
“Men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like.”
De León also reached out to the Institute of Governmental Advocates, which represents lobbyists and lobbying groups, to assure the group that the Senate would take “any and all actions necessary” to hold anyone accused of harassment or assault accountable, regardless of whether they work for the government.
“It is important that our zero tolerance policy not only protect Senate employees, but also the public and advocates who share and interact in our workplace,” de León said in a letter to his Senate colleagues.
And on Tuesday afternoon, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Assembly Rules Committee Chair Ken Cooley and Assemblymember Laura Friedman, who chairs the Assembly’s subcommittee dealing with harassment, announced they will hold public hearings on the allegations.
“They will be open to the public and transparent so that we can air out institutional advancements that need to be made in a deliberate way,” read a statement from the lawmakers.
Female lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staffers are among those who signed the letter and have gone on to form a group called We Said Enough.
“Men have groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities,” reads the letter. “Insults and sexual innuendo, frequently disguised as jokes, have undermined our professional positions and capabilities. Men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like.”
The legislature, however, has faced some criticism for not outsourcing the hiring decision to an ombudsman or other outside source.
Women in the Capitol “need a truly independent investigation, not a secretly hand-picked self-investigation,” Adama Iwu, a Visa government affairs director who helped organize the We Said Enough campaign, told the Sacramento Bee.
“I know for myself I probably would not feel comfortable speaking to an investigator that was hired by the body that employs these people and has previously protected some of the people who do these acts,” she said.
Iwu later raised concerns about the “divergent paths” of the Senate and Assembly’s responses, telling the Los Angeles Times she is concerned that women who signed the open letter may be called on to testify at a hearing without “legal guarantee against retaliation.”
Christine Pelosi, the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus and a signatory of the letter, told Politico’s California Playbook that having the Senate select its own investigators could have a “chilling effect” on the probe. She compared it to “Chris Christie picking Rudy Giuliani to look into Bridgegate.”
De León’s communications director, Anthony Reyes, said, “This external review by nationally recognized experts in workplace discrimination and harassment will be done professionally and transparently while protecting the privacy of the victims.”
De León said the independent investigators will interview “all relevant Senate staff” and “identify any actionable steps to properly address any and all allegations raised in the course of this investigation.” It’s unclear to what extent the investigation’s findings will be made public.
The signatories, meanwhile, say they intend to further advocate for victims of sexual harassment and assault, as well as reassess how such allegations are reported and addressed.
“Californians deserve a legislature and political system as ideal and decent as the people they serve,” the group said Monday in a statement. “We strive for equality in the workplace with zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment or abuse. We need new laws with teeth, accountability, disclosure and independent review of claims.”
This story has been updated with comment from state Sen. Kevin de Leon’s office.