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Report: California spent $1.8M on harassment inquiries

The California Legislature racked up more than $1.8 million in legal costs from sexual harassment investigations during 2018 and the first month of this year when at least nine current or former lawmakers faced allegations of misconduct

Posted: Mar 8, 2019 12:12 PM
Updated: Mar 8, 2019 1:27 PM

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Legislature racked up more than $1.8 million in legal costs from sexual harassment investigations during 2018 and the first month of this year when at least nine current or former lawmakers faced allegations of misconduct, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

The Senate spent $1.26 million and the Assembly $571,000, according to the documents provided under the Legislative Open Records Act.

Neither chamber provided specifics on how many investigations the money paid for nor how exactly it was spent, citing attorney-client privilege and other exemptions in the public records act.

But both chambers previously have disclosed hiring outside attorneys during that time to investigate five current or former Assembly members and four current or former senators.

Their behavior ranged from using vulgar language and giving uncomfortable hugs and a "noogie," to forcibly kissing a staff member and, in one case, masturbating in front of a lobbyist.

The spending occurred after accusations of widespread harassment at the Capitol surfaced in October 2017 as the #MeToo movement was roiling Hollywood and major corporations.

Four California lawmakers and multiple staffers eventually resigned, and the Legislature has since revamped its policies for reporting and investigating claims of misbehavior.

"It's not the kind of place you want your taxpayer dollars being used," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat representing part of Los Angeles and surrounding communities who led the committee to change harassment policies. "The goal of our new policies is to try to intervene much earlier before we get to a point where you need to have a very large investigation."

A new "Workplace Conduct Unit" debuted in February to look into all allegations of harassment and discrimination, sexual or otherwise, based on someone's race, gender or other protected classes. The findings of major investigations will then go to a panel of outside experts who will evaluate them and recommend action to the Legislature.

Lawmakers approved $1.5 million to get the four-person office up and running last year, and its proposed annual budget is $1.7 million. Some investigations could still be sent to outside lawyers, but most complaints will be handled internally, said Julia Johnson, the head of the unit.

"We expect that as this new process moves forward, it will be both effective for employees in stopping harassment and efficient for taxpayers in how it achieves that critical goal," Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in an emailed statement.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said his priority is for staff to feel safe and to create a more respectful, diverse and civil culture.

"For that to happen, we have to investigate workplace misconduct thoroughly and consistently. I will not put a price on the safety of our employees," he said in an emailed statement.

In 2018, the Legislature went regularly to outside lawyers to look into complaints. Firms hired by the Assembly in 2018 were: Littler Mendelson P.C., Stoel Rives LLP, and Van Dermyden Maddux Investigations. The Senate, meanwhile, hired the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer initially and later retained Van Dermyden Maddux and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to handle all investigations.

The decision to put two firms on retainer came as the Senate was taking heat over allegations former Sen. Tony Mendoza harassed multiple young women, including offering an underage employee alcohol and inviting another to his home. The firms are no longer handling sexual harassment investigations for the Senate, said Lizelda Lopez, Atkins' spokeswoman.

Former Senate president Kevin de Leon, who was in charge when the firms were put on retainer, said in a text message that employees' safety was the top priority and that the outside firms were brought in to ensure complaints were "aggressively investigated, free of any political influence."

Neither chamber discloses information about allegations that are not substantiated, making it impossible to know the number of investigations actually completed.

The Senate also paid out a $350,000 settlement to an employee who said the chamber failed to accommodate her needs after she alleged an Assembly employee raped her; the Assembly said it paid out no settlements during that time.

The Senate did not respond to questions about whether that $350,000 was part of its legal costs. Republican Assemblyman Steven Choi has introduced a bill that would ban the use of taxpayer money on settlements.

A bill by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican, would require the Legislature to publicly release findings of substantiated investigations into lawmakers and high-level staffers. The Legislature already provides that information to reporters, but it is not required to by law.

Beyond legal costs, the Assembly and Senate together spent $16,800 hiring an outside consulting firm to conduct a "culture survey" in 2018 to assess whether staff members felt respected and comfortable reporting incidents of harassment to their superiors, among other things.

The money went to a Florida-based firm called TalentKeepers. The company charged $5 for each employee taking the survey, a total of 2,661 people, according to an invoice.

Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento, surmised the public's reaction to all the spending will vary depending on their feelings about the issues raised by #MeToo. Nearly a year-and-a-half after the movement seized the national spotlight, America still is experiencing a cultural awakening about what behavior now is considered unacceptable, she said.

"Californians who are in the 'zero tolerance' camp are going to be horrified that we're paying to investigate this many examples of gross misbehavior," Nalder said. "And I suspect some older people will feel like it's a reflection of a sensitivity that they may find overblown."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 387485

Reported Deaths: 5116
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah59768836
Washington41571393
Marion39592504
Clackamas32426376
Lane29856354
Jackson24672350
Deschutes23182185
Umatilla15087180
Linn14488178
Douglas13236286
Josephine10057240
Yamhill9665142
Klamath8979145
Polk813698
Benton605137
Malheur591586
Coos5573106
Columbia423855
Jefferson416865
Lincoln357252
Union336854
Crook330156
Wasco314846
Clatsop258335
Baker217531
Tillamook214345
Hood River211337
Morrow197025
Curry190136
Harney119332
Grant108314
Lake104016
Wallowa74713
Sherman1903
Gilliam1844
Wheeler1141
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 5061240

Reported Deaths: 74159
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles152548627128
San Diego4047084319
Riverside3849455306
San Bernardino3718825944
Orange3329505675
Sacramento1674002423
Kern1565171781
Fresno1558992246
Santa Clara1511691922
Alameda1246581504
San Joaquin1070001833
Ventura1036461188
Contra Costa1032921045
Stanislaus912991413
Tulare856141082
San Francisco56614669
San Mateo56058629
Monterey52340625
Solano47422356
Santa Barbara47035548
Merced44807664
Sonoma42912412
Placer41881468
Imperial38128769
Kings35038358
San Luis Obispo31294358
Madera26005311
Shasta25917440
Butte25295309
Santa Cruz22028222
Yolo21451257
Marin18342248
El Dorado18166161
Sutter14494181
Napa13372104
Yuba1070088
Tehama10230129
Humboldt10043117
Nevada9914103
Mendocino848894
Lassen792355
San Benito775977
Tuolumne767790
Lake6990110
Amador573766
Siskiyou470954
Glenn455136
Calaveras435685
Del Norte371242
Colusa323519
Inyo254345
Plumas19127
Mono18294
Mariposa156718
Trinity98817
Modoc7475
Unassigned2430
Sierra2170
Alpine1060
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