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California legislative investigation finds Assemblyman Devon Mathis violated sexual harassment policy

California legislative investigation finds Assemblyman Devon Mathis violated sexual harassment policy
Assemblyman Devon Mathis at a 2017 hearing in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California Assembly officials revealed Wednesday that they have disciplined a Central Valley lawmaker, Assemblyman Devon Mathis, for frequently making coarse comments, including sexual remarks about fellow lawmakers.

A heavily redacted letter summarizing the probe released by the Assembly Rules Committee gave little detail on the nature of the complaint against Mathis, describing it as simply “sexual ‘locker room talk.’ ” The report did not specify how Mathis, a Visalia Republican, would be disciplined for the behavior.

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Mathis, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2014, responded by saying that the alleged comments were from “four years ago” and that he already has apologized for his behavior.

Mathis also released the full letter, dated June 20, without redactions. He said it showed “no wrongdoing of any sexual misconduct.” The letter includes a reference to a second allegation, one which investigators substantiated before reversing the findings after Mathis filed an appeal.

Neither Mathis nor Assembly officials provided information Wednesday about the first allegation.

The Legislature recently began releasing documents related to substantiated harassment complaints against lawmakers and high-ranking staff, after the #MeToo movement propelled allegations of state Capitol sexual misconduct into the limelight.

Three legislators — former Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) and Matt Dababneh (D-Woodland Hills) and former state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) — resigned after facing harassment allegations. Other legislators, including Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Woodland Hills) and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), were disciplined for behaving inappropriately through, respectively, unwanted hugs and vulgar language.

Before entering politics, Mathis served two tours in Iraq as a sergeant in the Army National Guard. In the Legislature, he was one of a handful of Republicans who voted in 2017 to extend the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program to combat climate change, a move that sparked a backlash from grass-roots Republican activists.

Sacramento police looked into an allegation of sexual misconduct against Mathis last fall but closed the investigation in November, telling the Sacramento Bee they were “unable to substantiate that a crime occurred.” Mathis also has been sued by two former employees over his workplace conduct; the lawmaker told the Visalia Times-Delta the suits were part of a “political attack by … disgruntled former employees.”

Unlike prior documents pertaining to sexual misconduct investigations, Assembly officials failed to reveal any of the actions taken against Mathis. Documents from earlier accusations against high-ranking staff members often included direction to counseling for the employee or requirements of a changed workplace.

In this case, Assembly officials chose only to reveal that a “remedial action” had been taken. The letter sent to Mathis said the measures taken “will prevent you from engaging in any future similar inappropriate conduct,” but it offered no evidence to back up that assertion.

Lawmakers continue to insist that disclosure of their sexual harassment records should be a voluntary process. Unlike state agencies and local governments, the Legislature has its own public records law — enacted in 1975 — that casts a wide net in decreeing that most internal records can be kept confidential.

A bill that would have mandated such a requirement was quietly killed this year when a high-ranking committee chairman refused to schedule it for a public hearing. Lawmakers bristled at the idea they were refusing to consider such a change to existing law, but they have failed in the intervening months to offer any alternative to ensure permanent public disclosure.

David Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said the release of redacted documents and rebuttals that included unredacted information Wednesday demonstrates that the legislative records law is overdue for reform.

“I think what the Legislature is discovering is that the law as it exists now is just unworkable,” Snyder said.

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