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California Rep. Tony Cardenas denies uncorroborated allegations of molesting teenage girl

California Rep. Tony Cardenas denies uncorroborated allegations of molesting teenage girl
Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) is one of the highest-ranking Latino members of Congress. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Tony Cardenas, a San Fernando Valley Democrat, confirmed Thursday that he is the unidentified elected official in a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles alleging sexual molestation of a teenage girl in 2007, but he vehemently denied the allegations.

"My client is sickened and distraught by these horrific allegations, which are 100%, categorically untrue," Patricia Glaser, an attorney for Cardenas, said Thursday in a statement.

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"We respect victims who have found the strength to come forward and call out misconduct when it has actually occurred, but the type of baseless and reckless allegations that are contained in the complaint against my client can ruin the lives and careers of innocent people," she said.

Cardenas' attorney said the woman who filed the suit is the daughter of a "disgruntled former employee" and "may be the victim of manipulation."

The suit states that the young woman came forward with the allegations because of the #MeToo movement that followed numerous disclosures of sexual harassment by high-profile business leaders and politicians. Now married, the woman wants "to be a strong role model" for her daughter, according to the suit.

Cardenas, one of the highest-ranking Latino members of Congress, leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Bold PAC, which works to elect Latinos nationwide. He also holds a low-level position in the House leadership.

Cardenas has been contacting fellow members of Congress in recent days to assert his innocence in connection with the lawsuit.

The Times has been unable to corroborate the allegations, and no public evidence has emerged to support them. The lawsuit poses one of the biggest political threats the rising Democratic star has faced.

Repeated attempts to contact Cardenas and his staff during the last week have failed.

"We ask that his constituents, the public generally, and his congressional colleagues do the right thing and appropriately withhold judgment until there has been a full vetting of the facts," Glaser said in the statement. "The congressman expects complete exoneration, as he is 100% innocent."

The encounter is alleged to have occurred more than a decade ago when Cardenas, an avid golfer and advocate for a youth golf program, was a Los Angeles city councilman. The suit claims that the elected official gave the girl water with a "peculiar taste" on a Los Angeles golf course and then molested her later in a car.

The Los Angeles Police Department has no active investigation into Cardenas, said Josh Rubenstein, director of communications.

Despite the anonymity in the suit, as required by California law, its descriptions of the alleged offender, including his age, political experience and affinity for golf, led reporters and others to suspect Cardenas was the person being accused.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, who has been involved with several high-profile assault cases, is representing the woman, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe.

"I represent the young woman who, carefully following California law, filed this action against the defendant named only as John Doe," Bloom said. "Once the court grants us leave to name the defendant, we will do so."

According to the suit, Cardenas was once close to the young woman's family.

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Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon said in an interview with The Times that he had a meeting in 2016 with a former Cardenas employee who he now believes is the accuser's father. The meeting took place not long after Alarcon had announced plans to run for Congress against Cardenas in the primary.

During the meeting, Alarcon said, the man said he had negative information on Cardenas but would only provide it to the media in exchange for a job on Alarcon's campaign. The man also claimed he had been cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office in a probe involving Cardenas and had entered into a plea agreement, Alarcon said.

Alarcon said that during the meeting, he decided he had no interest in hiring the man.

At no point during the conversation did the man say that Cardenas had committed sexual assault against anyone, Alarcon said.

Alarcon said that after the meeting ended, he received a text message from the man. "It said, 'Hey Tony, you'll never believe who called me and I just met with,' " Alarcon said.

Alarcon said he assumed that the text had been sent to him in error and was meant for Cardenas. "My instant reaction was, 'This guy is trying to play both of us,' " Alarcon said.

Not long after the meeting, Alarcon said, he reported the incident to the FBI.

Alarcon said he is not taking sides in the lawsuit or trying to cast doubt on the accuser's story. "I'm very sensitive to people who make these kinds of allegations, because if they're proven to be true, they're egregious," he added.

The Times has made repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact the man and his daughter for comment. The Times typically does not disclose the identities of alleged victims of sexual crimes.

More than half a dozen U.S. representatives and senators have been forced to resign since a wave of women have come forward detailing their experiences with sexual harassment by powerful men in politics, entertainment and the media.

In addition, Cardenas' longtime political ally Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a fellow northeast San Fernando Valley Democrat, resigned last fall after multiple sexual harassment claims were made against him. In a statement at the time, Cardenas said the state Assembly "must thoroughly and expeditiously investigate the allegations made against [Bocanegra] and he should resign immediately if he is found to be guilty."

Cardenas didn't show up to a scheduled event in his district Wednesday evening where he was expected to announce the winner of a student art competition whose work will hang in the halls of Congress.

"He's very, very sorry he couldn't make it today," his district director, Gabriela Marquez, told the dozens of students and parents gathered at Mission College in Sylmar.

Before joining Congress in 2013, Cardenas served for a decade on the Los Angeles City Council, and before that, three terms in the state Legislature.

In 2015, Cardenas's district director reported that she had been subpoenaed by a grand jury. The congressman has refused to discuss the underlying reason for the subpoena in the years since.

Over the next two years, his campaign spent $372,952 on legal services. The charges for legal services have tapered off, but Cardenas' campaign has paid prominent Washington law firm Perkins Coie LLP $31,389 since January 2017, with just under half of that being charged in February of this year.

The youngest of 11 children, Cardenas grew up in the Central Valley, where his father was a farmworker, and later moved to Pacoima. His father became a union construction worker and then started a gardening business.

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Cardenas, 55, and his siblings run a foundation named for their parents that provides scholarships to local children. He and his wife, Norma, have four children.

Times staff writers Emily Alpert Reyes, Christine Mai-Duc and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Twitter: @sarahdwire

Twitter: @davidzahniser

UPDATES:

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background information.

3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about the suit and comments from Bloom and Alarcon.

This article was originally published at 2:15 p.m.

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