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California assemblyman accused of forcing lobbyist into bathroom and masturbating

Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez has claimed that, in 2016, Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh followed her into a bathroom, masturbated in front of her and urged her to touch him. Dababneh has strongly denied the allegation.

"It was Matt Dababneh," Lopez told The Times in a November interview.

Lopez jolted the California political world seven weeks ago when she first shared her account of an encounter in Las Vegas, joining more than 140 women as they denounced in an open letter a "pervasive" culture of sexual harassment and misconduct in the state Capitol.

Lopez had not publicly accused Dababneh until Monday, when she formally filed a complaint with the Assembly and named him at a news conference. The Times had been preparing a report on her accusations against Dababneh, and sought the assemblyman’s comment late last week.

Dababneh told the Times on Monday afternoon that he “100%” denies Lopez’s allegation.

“I am utterly shocked and blown away,” Dababneh said in an interview. “This is a career-ending charge based on no facts.”

The accusation against the assemblyman comes as a public reckoning over sexual harassment has upended the worlds of politics, entertainment, media and tech. In Sacramento, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) resigned last week after allegations from multiple women that he made unwanted sexual advances throughout his career in state government. State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Los Angeles) lost his leadership positions and faces a legislative investigation after multiple allegations of misconduct toward female staffers.

Dababneh, who is unmarried and at 36 is one of Sacramento’s youngest legislators, has had a fairly rapid rise in state politics. The San Fernando Valley native and UCLA graduate began working for U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch) in 2005, and in 2009 became the congressman’s chief of staff in his district office.

In 2013, Dababneh narrowly won a special election for his Assembly seat in a reliably Democratic district that includes Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. Since then, he has handily won reelection twice, boosted by a flush campaign account and an influential perch as chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee.

Lopez, 35, first told her story of the encounter to the New York Times in October, but she declined to name the legislator. At an Assembly hearing Tuesday on harassment prevention, she said, “I am fearful of being retaliated against.”

She has told the Los Angeles Times in a series of interviews she worried that naming the legislator would turn him into a scapegoat, distracting from the larger issues of a Capitol culture she believes does not sufficiently protect women. She also told The Times she wasn’t naming him because he holds a powerful position.

Lopez said in the interviews that when she initially told her story to news organizations, she purposely misstated the location, saying it happened in a bar in Sacramento. The reason, she said, was that she feared disclosing the true location — a co-ed bachelor party at a Las Vegas hotel – because it would have made it easier to identify Dababneh.

She said she decided to name him after Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Ken Cooley urged women who have been sexually harassed within the California Capitol community to seek redress through the Legislature, promising to put victims and their safety first.

“He promised a process that will be neutral and unbiased and not rigged to protect powerful men and powerful lawmakers in our community,” she said at the news conference. “In doing this I am choosing to have hope that that process will work and I am putting this in the hands of the lawmakers who have told me that they will act to protect me.”

Now, she told The Times, the surge of other women going public with specific accusations of sexual harassment in the Capitol had prompted her to do the same.

Those women “who shared stories that are so painful and so scary and also courageous, they have found it in themselves to get up and still go to work in a community where they will have to … risk facing their perpetrator,” she said. “They stepped up.”

‘Panic’ in Las Vegas

Lopez said the incident occurred on Jan. 16, 2016. Around 50 elected officials and campaign operatives from the Sacramento and Los Angeles areas had gathered to celebrate their friends’ upcoming wedding.

The Saturday night party was in a room at the SkyLofts, a boutique hotel in the MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas. An invitation reviewed by The Times playfully called the event a “Grassroots Leadership Training Program.”

Several people who were there confirmed both Lopez and Dababneh attended the party. There are differing accounts of what transpired.

Lopez said she was there from early evening until late at night. Dababneh arrived around 8 p.m. and stayed for about 90 minutes, according to two people who attended with him.

Lopez said she found herself briefly chatting with Dababneh, whom she had met before through mutual friends. Dababneh at that point had served in the Legislature for two years. Their interaction was no more than three or four sentences, Lopez said.

An hour or two later, Lopez said she felt a large body following her into a single-use bathroom. She said it was Dababneh, who is more than 6 feet tall and sturdily built.

"The weight of that body was pushing me into the restroom. I heard the door slam behind me," Lopez said. "I spun around and by the time I had gotten myself spun around, I saw that I was facing Matt Dababneh and he had unzipped his pants and exposed himself and had begun to masturbate."

Lopez said she backed away from him, her mind racing with the realization of what was happening. "The panic was just immense," she said.

Lopez said Dababneh demanded that she touch his genitals.

"I remember thinking, at the very least, make it very clear you don't want to be here," she said. "Don't say anything to allow him to misinterpret your refusal as you being shy or coquettish."

She said she stated firmly she would not touch him, and repeated it multiple times. She said he then asked her to touch him elsewhere, even just rest her arm on him. Lopez said she interpreted the request as a type of attempted negotiation. Again, she refused. She said Dababneh then ejaculated into the toilet. The whole encounter lasted less than five minutes, Lopez said.

Lopez said that Dababneh immediately expressed regret and disbelief. She said he told her, "’I can't believe I just did that.’"

Lopez said she pointed him toward the door. She said that, as he exited, Dababneh told her not to say anything. She said she turned the request back on him, raising her voice: "Don't you tell anyone this happened."

She said she didn't tell anyone at the party what had happened, afraid someone would find Dababneh and make a scene.

Lopez said that over the course of the evening, she had several alcoholic beverages, but said she recalled the incident in the bathroom with clarity.

Dababneh said he did not go to the bathroom in the loft. He said he spent the entire night with his friend Ken Maxey and a second friend who attended the party.

Maxey said he saw Lopez speak with Dababneh, but said he does not recall the assemblyman using the bathroom at the party. Maxey spoke with The Times at the legislator’s request in an interview facilitated by Dababneh’s attorney. Maxey said he was with Dababneh for the “majority” of the night. The second friend, who declined to be named for fear it could affect her job, said she was either with, or within eyesight, of Dababneh most of the evening.

“I don’t see how it’s possible,” Maxey said of Lopez’s accusation. He noted the loft where the party was held had an open layout, which he said would make it difficult for such an incident to go unnoticed.

“The way the room was, there would’ve been someone to witness that, in my opinion,” he said.

Women speak out about harassment in California's Capitol »

The host, who declined to be named, told The Times that Lopez texted him the next day suggesting she had a good time. “Thank you for a great weekend! Johnny and I are looking forward to your wedding!” she wrote, referring to her then-boyfriend.

Lopez said she told her boyfriend, who is now her husband, about the incident the next day. He could not be reached for comment.

Afrack Vargas, Lopez’s business partner at the lobbying firm K Street Consulting, said Lopez told him within days of her return to Sacramento from the Las Vegas trip that Dababneh had pushed her into the bathroom and masturbated. He said they discussed if she felt safe and whether the incident would have an effect on their lobbying business. Vargas said they decided it likely wouldn’t because their areas of specialty — tribal issues, public safety and education — had little overlap with Dababneh, who works on finance issues.

Vargas said their conversation did not dwell on whether Lopez should report the incident — either to police or to the Legislature.

“She didn’t feel there was a process in place that protected women or was welcoming, so she didn’t,” he said.

The Times also spoke with Deanna Johnston, a friend who said Lopez told her about the encounter with Dababneh in the bathroom several weeks after it happened.

When Lopez went public in October — 21 months after the party — with her accusation, saying only it was a “legislator,” top lawmakers swiftly weighed in to condemn the behavior. Both houses made inquiries to Lopez about the incident.

“The behavior she described is horrifying. It is also a crime,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said in a statement at the time. “If we learn that the individual involved is a member of the Assembly, we will contract with an outside firm so there can be an independent investigation. If he is found to have committed this assault, I will ask for his immediate resignation and move for his expulsion if he refuses to resign.”

Lopez said she contacted the Las Vegas police several weeks ago — after her allies urged her to reach out to law enforcement — to see what her options would be if she decided to press criminal charges. She said the detective she spoke to, whose name she did not recall, could not say if police would open an investigation, given that according to her account there were no witnesses and no physical evidence.

“I didn't feel confident they would take it seriously. But I wanted to be able to say I had gone to the police,” she said.

Even as top legislators expressed concern and support, Lopez said she has faced “informal retaliation” and pressure to identify the lawmaker.

“I hear whispering behind my back when I walk through the halls of the Capitol,” she said. “I get funny looks. I have had many men call my business partner and see if they can get some sort of real scoop on me.”

Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) said Monday the Assembly will refer Lopez’s allegation to an outside investigator. Dababneh said he would cooperate with that inquiry.

“I look forward to any investigation that will give me my reputation back,” he said.

Victims denounce a failing system for reporting sexual harassment at the California Capitol »

Crude talk in the office

Jessica Yas Barker worked as Dababneh’s subordinate in Sherman’s congressional district office in Sherman Oaks from June 2009 to December 2010. She joined Lopez at the press conference Monday. In November interviews with The Times, Barker recalled that Dababneh regularly spoke about his sexual exploits and made degrading comments about women. She said his behavior was the main factor in her decision to leave her job as a field representative for the congressman after 18 months.

She said over the course of her tenure there that Dababneh frequently made inappropriate comments at work, including talking about his sexual habits and the attire of female staffers. At work events, “he would look around the room and talk about who he had sex with and who he hadn't,” Barker said. “He was constantly talking about his sexual prowess.”

Barker, now 34, said Dababneh chided her for wearing pants to work, and said she dressed “like a lesbian,” asserting that women should wear dresses. She said he asked female employees, “How’s that glass ceiling treating you?”

Barker said she did not formally report Dababneh’s actions because she was unsure where to file such a complaint — echoing criticism in recent weeks that Congress’ confusing reporting process discourages people from coming forward. She said she had no reason to believe Sherman was aware of Dababneh’s conduct.

Sherman said he meets annually with employees to ask their concerns, and that prior to hearing Barker’s allegation, he had “never seen or been told of” any inappropriate behavior or disparagement of women from Dababneh.

“We have always had a strong policy against sexual harassment. I and my entire staff have recently renewed our sexual harassment training,” Sherman said in a statement to The Times. “I personally feel terrible that anyone was made to feel uncomfortable while working in my office. We are redoubling our efforts to make sure that my offices are safe and comfortable places for women and men to work.”

Two friends confirmed to The Times that Barker regularly told them about Dababneh’s behavior and that she said it made her feel uncomfortable.

Erin Prangley, Dababneh’s former supervisor in Sherman’s office, said she never received any complaints about his behavior. She said she recommended him to succeed her as district chief of staff when she moved to Washington.

Prangley, who spoke to The Times at Dababneh’s request in an interview facilitated by the assemblyman’s attorney, was not in the district office regularly during the time Barker worked there. A second colleague, who worked in the district office when Barker was there and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he did not recall Dababneh speaking in the office about sex, his dating life, women’s attire or generally disparaging comments about women. This person also was connected to The Times through Dababneh.

Dababneh specifically denied talking about his sexual exploits in the workplace or making disparaging comments about women or their attire. He said Barker’s accusation was “politically motivated.”

“I am just shocked at her allegations,” he said. “No one else in that office — that currently works there, that was there then or any of the previous staff that worked with me at that time — would corroborate it. That's just not how I behaved.”

Records show Barker donated $199 to a Democratic staffer who ran against Dababneh in the 2013 special election for his Assembly seat. Barker, who works as a director of corporate relations for the independent television network Ovation, also serves as president of the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, an organization that has at times criticized Dababneh as not being sufficiently progressive.

Barker said her personal opinion of Dababneh was not shaped by political differences.

“I disliked Matt's behavior in the office and his lack of professionalism and his sexism and chauvinism long before he was an elected official,” she said.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.

Sexual harassment hearings come as California Capitol is roiled by accusations and a resignation

When men with power go too far: After years of whispers, women speak out about harassment in California's Capitol

Updates from Sacramento


UPDATES:

2:00 p.m.: This article was updated following an interview with Dababneh and to add an additional detail about Dababneh’s friend saying he was within her sight at all times during the party.

This article was originally published at 11:26 a.m.

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