After being accused of sexual misconduct against staff, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned Monday and the Senate Rules Committee stripped Sen. Tony Mendoza of his committee assignments. Hear, hear!
Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, won’t be missed, except by a few moneyed interest groups. Californians will get along fine without Mendoza, D-Artesia, chairing the Senate committee that oversees the banking and insurance industries.
Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes take note: The #MeToo issue isn’t going away, at any level of government. And it’s growing, with accusations arising in Colorado, Texas, Arkansas and Great Britain’s Parliament.
Still, the California Legislature’s reckoning for these transgressions will not be complete until we know the full scope of what has happened. And we don’t; not yet.
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In addition to approving legislation by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, that would extend whistle-blower protection to legislative staffers, the Senate and Assembly need to end the practice of insisting victims sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settling harassment claims.
Victims should have the right to speak without fear of retaliation. The Legislature should work toward releasing victims from past nondisclosure agreements. Voters should be able to hear the whole story.
Assembly hearings on the issue began Tuesday. The Senate Rules Committee, led by lame-duck Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, had a brief public hearing Monday in which it stripped Mendoza of his positions.
But in a tone-deaf move, the committee retreated into a closed session. We presume, but do not know, that Rules Committee members further discussed the issue first raised last month when women staffers, lobbyists and consultants signed a #WeSaidEnough letter alleging acts of harassment.
De León has appointed a seven-person panel to select an outside law firm to investigate future harassment claims. It’s a solid step, but some have criticized the panel because it includes only one Republican.
Harassment is a bipartisan offense. Political “balance” is less important than a commitment to recognizing the problem and a dedication to transparency in the panel’s findings and deliberations. Unfortunately, we’re not yet convinced such transparency is a priority.
When asked by a The Sacramento Bee reporter (under the Legislative Open Records Act) to provide all nondisclosure agreements from 2007, Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez released only a handful. His Assembly counterpart said there were no such records. Yet, multiple sources have said they signed such agreements to receive settlements or severance checks.
Nondisclosure agreements might protect those whose careers could otherwise be ruined by a misunderstanding, but they also shield legislators and senior staffers who harass or bully employees, denying voters a clear picture of whom they’re electing.
Bocanegra was a senior Assembly staffer in 2009 when the Assembly quietly settled a case in which a staffer accused him of stalking and groping her. Would he have won his 2012 election if voters had known of these accusations?
The public pays the cost of settling harassment claims; so the public has a right to know how much is being spent, who benefits and which lawmakers are making us liable.
For legislators, reputation is more important than money. If they know their dirty little secrets will become public, they will soon learn that such transgressions have serious costs.