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California Assemblyman was disciplined after woman claimed he groped her

California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra was disciplined after a human resources investigation eight years ago, when a female Capitol staffer accused him of “inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact,” The Times has learned.

Elise Flynn Gyore said Bocanegra, at the time chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, groped her and followed her in a manner she found threatening at an after-work event attended by legislators, staff and lobbyists.

“He menaced me that evening,” Gyore said in an interview, speaking publicly about the 2009 incident for the first time. She said the encounter left her so distraught that she filed a human resources complaint the following day.

A weeks-long investigation by independent attorneys hired by the Legislature concluded that “it is more likely than not that Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectations for professionalism,” according to a June 22, 2009, letter from the Assembly Rules Committee reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

The letter, signed by the Assembly’s then-chief administrative officer, barred Bocanegra from subsequently communicating with Gyore and promised “additional appropriate action to help ensure there are no recurring issues.”

The Assemblyman apologized on Friday after being asked about Gyore.

“This unfortunate experience I was involved in as a staffer nearly 10 years ago was something I regret and learned from. As to the complaint filed, I fully cooperated with the investigation and after a comprehensive review by an independent body, which included interviews of over a dozen witnesses, the investigation was closed,” Bocanegra, 46, said in a statement.

“I will work closely with my colleagues to ensure all processes involving sexual harassment are handled properly and fairly and that no woman or man who has been harassed is retaliated against by members or staff,” said Bocanegra, who is not married. “Again, I’m deeply regretful about putting someone in this position and I want to apologize most sincerely.”

Bocanegra, a Democrat, represents the northeast San Fernando Valley, including the city of San Fernando, Pacoima and Sylmar. He won his first election in 2012 in a landslide.

While scores of women have spoken out in recent weeks about their own experiences with sexual harassment in the Capitol, they have so far declined to make specific accusations, hoping instead to focus attention on a culture they say is saturated with inappropriate behavior. Gyore said the problem goes beyond any one lawmaker, adding that she believes it is time to begin calling out individuals.

“This is becoming ridiculous,” she said. “I’m tired of being quiet to protect bad actors. I’m tired of that. As women, we’re tired of that.”

What happened

It was April 29, 2009. Gyore, who had already worked in the Capitol for eight years, went to the Mix nightclub a few blocks from the statehouse for a typical after-hours work gathering.

Gyore, 41, said she had never met Bocanegra before that night. As she socialized, she noticed him hanging around, often at the periphery of conversations.

Later in the evening Gyore maneuvered through some people dancing near the bathroom. She said Bocanegra suddenly appeared next to her and reached his hands in her blouse “very aggressively,” she said.

“I jumped out of my skin,” Gyore said. She told him no, adding that she was married, she said.

Gyore was used to the lingering hugs and inappropriate comments that she said were commonplace in political work.

Bocanegra's behavior that night at the bar felt different, she said.

“Every time I turned around, there he was. I would go to the bathroom — if I came out, there he was,” Gyore said. “If I went and talked to a group of friends, there he was.”

The attention was so disconcerting that she pointed him out to her then-boss, Democratic state Sen. Ron Calderon, who told her to stay close to him that night. Gyore also asked others if they knew who he was. She said she kept getting the same answer: “I think that’s Fuentes’ chief of staff.”

She was worried that he might follow her to her car. She ultimately left with a friend and on her way home called her husband in tears. She also called Tish Rylander, a friend and Assembly staffer.

“She was pretty much hysterical,” Rylander said. “I had never heard her in that way.”

The complaint

The next day at work, she discussed her experience with colleagues, describing what the man had been wearing and asking if they knew him. Rylander found a photo of Bocanegra on Facebook. With Rylander by her side, Gyore reported the incident to the top Senate sergeant.

The complaint promptly set off an investigation, which was detailed in the letter sent to Gyore. The Assembly Rules Committee hired outside attorneys with the law firm Shaw Valenza LLP, who interviewed 13 people about the incident. The letter does not name them, but does note that there were no eyewitnesses to the behavior. The attorneys sought video camera footage. They spoke to Bocanegra.

The chief administrative officer met with Gyore on June 22, 2009, and followed up with the letter, which detailed how she had alleged Bocanegra “made inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact … [and] inappropriate and unwelcome verbal remarks” to her.

The letter stated that the Assembly cannot control how and where employees spend their hours outside of work, but said staff were expected to act “professionally” away from the workplace. It also noted the Assembly “strictly prohibits retaliation” and urged Gyore to speak up if she felt she faced any such problem as a result of filing her complaint.

Gyore spoke publicly for the first time about a 2009 complaint she filed against Bocanegra.
Gyore spoke publicly for the first time about a 2009 complaint she filed against Bocanegra. Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

Gyore said she had asked Assembly officials to move Bocanegra to a satellite office outside the Capitol. Instead, the letter said, Bocanegra would be “instructed not to communicate” with Gyore, and would have to contact Calderon’s chief of staff to conduct business with the senator’s office. The Rules Committee promised additional action to prevent recurring issues, which Gyore said she was told by Assembly staff would be anti-harassment training.

In the letter, then-chief administrative officer Jon Waldie directed Gyore to contact either him, the Assembly deputy administrative officer Lynda Roper or Senate director of personnel Dina Hidalgo “if there are any future problems.”

Hidalgo, who left the Senate in 2014, said Friday she remembered the investigation. “I was very supportive of her. I remember how difficult it was for her,” Hidalgo said. “What she had told us had happened, I felt it was completely inappropriate and out of line.”

Roper, who retired from the Assembly in 2016, declined to comment. Attempts on Friday to reach Waldie, who retired in 2014, were unsuccessful.

“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Why the hell did I say anything? What good has this done for me?’” Gyore said. “Now half the damn Capitol knows this happened, and I don’t know what it has accomplished.”

Filing the complaint went against every instinct Gyore had built up as a staffer, she said. As a woman in a male-dominated office, she was loath to exhibit any signs of fragility. She credits Calderon and his staff, as well as her next employer, then-Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), for being supportive.

As she moved to the Assembly in 2011, she asked human resources officials there if she would have the same protections against Bocanegra in the Assembly that she had in the Senate. Gyore said that an Assembly administrative official told her no. The official told her that Bocanegra had learned his lesson, she said.

“I believe my reply was, ‘I’m glad he could do that at my expense,” Gyore said.

Mitchell said she recalled hearing about Gyore’s complaint around the same time Bocanegra was preparing for a 2012 run and seeking her endorsement. She declined.

“It, of course, impacted my perception of him as a person, no question,” said Mitchell, now a state senator.

Mitchell said she never discussed the complaint with Bocanegra. “I would not disrespect Elise's desire to manage it the way she did” by bringing up the incident, she said.

At least one person aware of the complaint did endorse Bocanegra for his first run: Calderon, Gyore’s former boss, whom she had known for 10 years.

“It felt just like a punch in the stomach,” she said. “It’s a reminder of where your place is. That at the end of the day, it’s about politics. It’s not about women.”

Calderon did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to his attorney.

Rumors on campaign trail

Bocanegra got his start in local politics in the San Fernando Valley. Work in city government led him to a staff position with Alex Padilla, who was then president of the Los Angeles City Council and is now California’s secretary of state. He worked from 2007 to 2012 for Fuentes (D-Sylmar), who served five years in the Assembly before being elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He is now a Sacramento lobbyist.

Rumors of Bocanegra’s alleged behavior seeped into his contentious 2012 Assembly run against Richard Alarcon, a former legislator and Los Angeles city councilman. L.A. Weekly reported on an open letter from a group of women in the San Fernando Valley, which referenced a harassment complaint filed against Bocanegra by a female legislative staffer. The women called for the complaint to be made public. When Gyore was contacted by a Times reporter in 2012, she never responded. The thought of going public at that time, she said, “chilled me to the bone.”

Bocanegra won that election easily and was widely viewed as an up-and-comer, with hopes of becoming Assembly speaker. He made an unsuccessful bid for the job in 2014, losing to then-Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). He was narrowly defeated for reelection in 2014, but reclaimed his seat in a rematch last fall.

Gyore said she has not spoken to Bocanegra since the night of the incident. In the years since, she climbed the ranks of legislative staffers, eventually becoming chief of staff to Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) in 2016. That stature, coupled with the Capitol’s current soul-searching over abuse in the workplace, convinced Gyore that now was the time to speak.

“It’s solely to hold him accountable,” said Gyore.

She said she also hopes her story can help alter the broader culture in California politics, where women must dedicate untold energy to fending off unwanted advances, keeping a watchful eye on friends or plotting a way to get home.

“It’s exhausting,” Gyore said. “It is exhausting to go through all the mental machinations to make sure that you are safe.”

Times staff writers John Myers, Patrick McGreevy and Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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melanie.mason@latimes.com

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