California Senate hires outside firms to review harassment

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The leader of the California Senate announced Monday that two outside firms will investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment, including unwanted groping and sexual advances, and will review the chamber’s policies for responding to such misconduct.

The move comes as female lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative staffers share stories of harassment at the Capitol. They have not accused any specific lawmakers, but their stories, shared online and with reporters, include allegations of men touching them and asking them to perform sex acts.

The women argued in an open letter published last week that existing policies don’t adequately protect women from retaliation if they report inappropriate behavior. They joined a series of online posts about harassment from men following allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“Everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said in a statement.

The Senate and Assembly have “zero tolerance” policies toward sexual assault and harassment, but experts and women at the Capitol said they don’t do enough to make women feel like they will be protected from retaliation if they speak up.

“Even if they, on paper, seem to be saying there’s a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the Capitol, that is not the feeling that especially women are getting in the Capitol,” said Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Others argue male legislative leaders could have taken action to strengthen the policies before the letter brought fresh allegations to light. A measure to enshrine whistleblower protections into law for legislative staff members has died in committee four years in a row.

“I told them I was going to bring it up every year until they pass it,” said Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, the bill’s sponsor.

The Senate hired the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, a firm with experience in investigating workplace harassment and discrimination, to conduct an investigation that will include interviews with all Senate staff members as well as those who have left in the past five years, said Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for de Leon, who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat.

Sacramento-based CPS HR Consulting will review the Senate’s policies for responding to harassment complaints.

In the Assembly, a rules subcommittee that focuses on harassment, discrimination and retaliation prevention will review the chamber’s policies when it reconvenes in January.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon met with lawmakers’ chiefs of staff on Friday to highlight their responsibility to report violations of the chamber’s policies.
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By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
Associated Press