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Republican candidate faces sexual harassment allegations in heated Santa Clarita Assembly race

Republican candidate faces sexual harassment allegations in heated Santa Clarita Assembly race
An undated image of Dante Acosta, a Republican candidate for Assembly, provided by his campaign. (Dante Acosta for Assembly)

Less than two weeks before the general election, allegations of sexual harassment emerged Tuesday against Republican Dante Acosta, a candidate for Assembly in the Santa Clarita Valley. The accusations in this previously little-noticed race threaten to touch the campaigns of two prominent Southern California Republicans with close ties to Acosta, one running for state Senate and the other for Congress.

The claims first came to light when local blog Sclarita.com published a partially redacted private email from a woman who said Acosta, Santa Clarita's mayor pro tem, had "propositioned" her last year when they were both in Washington, D.C. The emails were sent by Jennifer Van Laar, a local political consultant who worked for a former opponent of Acosta's.

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Until recently, Acosta, 53, worked in the district office for Rep. Steve Knight (R-Lancaster). He has appeared on campaign mailers with Knight and Assemblyman Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), whom Acosta is running to replace as Wilk launches a bid for the area’s state Senate seat.

The email, sent just four days before the June primary this year, was addressed to Vanessa Wilk, Scott Wilk’s wife and a staff member for the state Senate district the assemblyman is running to represent. The seat was left vacant by the death of   Sen. Sharon Runner in July. Knight and Scott Wilk were copied on the email.

The woman said the incident happened after Acosta asked her to meet with him to talk about his "political future and how I could work with him on it."

The email also accused Acosta of "drunk texting" Van Laar, alleging that he continued to send "inappropriate" text messages to her.

Van Laar, a local political consultant and sometime conservative radio host, confirmed to The Times that she sent the email.

A statement from Acosta's campaign did not mention Van Laar by name, but claimed that his accuser had encouraged Acosta to run for office and "aggressively pursued him as a client," saying the accusations were retaliation for his decision not to hire her. Van Laar, who also goes by the name Jennifer Knight, was a consultant for Jarrod DeGonia, another Republican candidate who ran against Acosta in the contentious June primary.

On Wednesday, the Acosta campaign also released what it said were screenshots of text messages between the candidate and Van Laar between January 2015 and March 2016 that appear to show a friendly exchange over more than a year, adding in its statement that "there is not one text that shows any inappropriate behavior."

"The woman in question alleges that the behavior occurred in January 2015 in Washington, DC," the statement read. "More than a year later, the woman encouraged Mr. Acosta to run for State Senate, and then State Assembly, and to retain her as his consultant.  She continued to communicate with him in person, telephonically, and text up until he filed to run."

In an email, Van Laar said the statements made in her original email to Wilk were true.

"I am saddened that instead of coming clean, Dante chose instead to accuse me of lying and of having an untrue and nefarious motive," she said.

In a phone call with The Times on Thursday, Van Laar said the messages released were mostly authentic, but said that she believed some may have been altered or left out. Van Laar said she possessed earlier "inappropriate" text messages from Acosta that referenced the incident in Washington, D.C. She declined to provide copies of those text messages, adding that she was in the process of retaining an attorney.

Speaking to The Times Tuesday night, Vanessa Wilk said Van Laar, whom she said she'd met in local GOP circles, called her about 10 days before the June 7 primary to discuss the alleged incident.

Unsure if the accusations were true, Wilk said, she asked Van Laar not to "go public" with the allegations out of concern for Acosta's wife, Carolyn. Wilk said she was "trying to be sympathetic" to Van Laar and was not sure she believed the accusations.

"It didn't ring right to me," Wilk said. "Something in my gut made me feel it was politically motivated."

A joint mailer paid for by the campaigns of Rep. Steve Knight, Assemblyman Scott Wilk and Dante Acosta.
A joint mailer paid for by the campaigns of Rep. Steve Knight, Assemblyman Scott Wilk and Dante Acosta. (Handout)

Scott Wilk said he discussed the allegations with Acosta shortly after he was copied on the email.

Acosta "said there was no bearing to it," he said. "I have no reason not to believe him; he's a person I've had a relationship with for so many years versus a woman I don't know."

Wilk said he never discussed the allegations with Knight because he felt it was "inappropriate" that he was included on the email to begin with.

In a statement released by his campaign, Knight said he spoke with Van Laar in June about the allegations.

"My immediate priority was to ensure that she was safe. I listened to her version of events and offered my assistance," Knight said, adding that he respected Van Laar's wishes when she told him she didn't want to contact police or take legal action.

"All accusations of harassment are serious and should be treated with the utmost sensitivity," Knight said. "I will continue to monitor this situation as more information is brought to light, and will respond accordingly."

The candidates facing Acosta and Knight immediately seized on the issue. Democrat Christy Smith, who is running against Acosta, called the allegations "shocking, horrifying and utterly disqualifying."

Democrat Johnathon Ervin, a candidate opposing Wilk, raised questions about whether the assemblyman helped "cover up" the allegations. Bryan Caforio, a Democrat challenging Knight, said in a statement that the allegations should not be taken lightly and accused Knight of failing "his moral obligations."

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.

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UPDATES:

1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about screenshots of text messages released by the Acosta campaign, and Van Laar's response to the messages.

This article was originally published at 12:05 a.m.

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