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Graphic allegations about California legislator show there are few protections for female lobbyists in the Capitol

The letter signed by more than 140 women cited nonconsensual touching, inappropriate comments and sexual innuendo.

As a blunt manifesto painting the state Capitol as rife with sexual harassment and misconduct ricocheted through Sacramento this week, leaders have begun looking into an explosive allegation of a forced sexual encounter and grappling with legislative solutions to the apparently ubiquitous culture of abuse in California politics.

The story shared by one lobbyist, Pamela Lopez, of a legislator masturbating in front of her in a bar bathroom has sparked investigations by the state Senate and Assembly. Lopez refused to disclose the legislator's identity. There are 93 male lawmakers currently serving in Sacramento.

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Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon has vowed to back resignation or expulsion if the perpetrator is found to be one of his members.

Lopez's tale underscores a systemic flaw in the state's protections for women who work in — but are not employees of — the state Capitol. Female lobbyists say they feel there are few avenues to lodge workplace complaints against legislators, staff and lobbyists with different employers. The lack of options has attracted the attention of one state senator, who said she wants to address the problem in legislation next year.

"I don't even know where I would go" to report abuse, said Lopez, whose 2016 incident with the current legislator was first reported by the New York Times. The letter calling attention to sexual harassment was first published by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.

Lopez, 35, said she was walking into a single-room bathroom at a bar in Sacramento when she felt a large body swoop in behind her and lock the door. The man had his pants unzipped and began masturbating in front of her, encouraging her to touch him. She refused.

After the legislator finished touching himself, she said she went into "mom mode," ushering him out of the door and composing herself to look unperturbed.

"I remember thinking, 'Don't scream or shout. I don't want to cause a scene,'" Lopez said, recalling that she was willing herself not to contort her face or appear scared. "'Just look like nothing happened.'"

Lopez did not report the incident to the police or tell anyone else. Though she hasn't had to lobby the legislator directly on bills since the incident, she has passed him in Capitol corridors, with the sense he doesn't recognize her.

"It's very dehumanizing," she said. "He just looks at me like nothing ever happened."

She has steadfastly declined to name the lawmaker.

"We're not interested in taking punitive action," she said of herself and others speaking out publicly. "We're interested in a comprehensive look at the masculinized ethos of California politics — how we can all collectively do better in the future."

The allegation has prompted internal reviews in the Legislature. Lopez said she heard from an outside attorney contracted by the state Senate on Wednesday, who encouraged her to reveal if the lawmaker was a senator, and if so, who. Lopez said she thanked the lawyer, but declined.

"While there has been no formal complaint, the allegation in the New York Times story is startling and unsettling," Daniel Alvarez, secretary of the Senate, said in a statement. "We take this allegation very seriously, and we are currently reviewing the matter in accordance with our policies."

Rendon (D-Paramount) said his office also intends to reach out to Lopez.

"The behavior she described is horrifying. It is also a crime," Rendon said in a statement. "I hope a law enforcement investigation has already been initiated. 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."

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Other lobbyists say inappropriate touching and suggestive comments are commonplace in the job.

Kim Stone, a former district attorney who became a lobbyist in 2005, said she experienced harassment her first year on the job, when a candidate for statewide office groped her backside at a public event, even as other attendees milled nearby.

"His hands were all over me," Stone recalled.

A few years later, while she was seated next to her then-husband at a fundraiser, a former legislator began running his hands through her hair. When she tried to make a lighthearted joke to stop him, she said, he acted offended, telling her not to be so sensitive and he was just being friendly.

"My friends don't put their hands through my hair," she responded. She declined to name either person.

Still, Stone said, it's a delicate balancing act to shut down advances without ruining rapport with a lawmaker, which is crucial in her line of work.

"You cannot merely be a subject matter expert with no personality. You need to be able to connect with people," Stone said. "There's a personal element to being successful at this job. That makes the threat of sexual harassment and your response to it even more complicated."

Lobbyists and staff alike have expressed in interviews that the Legislature's internal protocol to field complaints falls short, in part because the panels are overseen by members and house leadership, prompting fears of blowback for the accuser. Rendon said his office would be reaching out to Assembly staff to ensure they feel "comfortable" in bringing complaints, adding, "we will ensure there is no retaliation of any kind."

Although the Senate and Assembly Rules committees — which function as the Legislature's human resources departments — accept complaints from non-employees who interact with members and staff, women say the policies have little practical effect and are not covered in mandatory ethics training for registered lobbyists.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), a former chair of the Assembly Rules committee, said she wants to shore up protections for women not employed in the Capitol.

"If I'm a lobbyist and the lobbyist who acts on me is not my employer, what are my rights? If I'm a lobbyist and it's somebody in the Capitol, what are my rights?" said Skinner, who has directed her staff to explore legislation on the issue for next year.

Paula Treat, who has been a lobbyist for 40 years, said right now, lobbyists have little recourse other than legal options such as filing a police report.

"Most people who are trying to build a career are probably not going to bring a legal action," Treat said.

In the 1980s, Treat moved from Sacramento to Reno for three years after she rebuffed a powerful lawmaker's demand for sex. She said the legislator retaliated by killing the bills she worked on. The Times is not naming the legislator, who is deceased. In the years since, she has established her own firm and built a reputation as someone not easily intimidated.

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"The reason I haven't been put in that position probably in the last 10 years or so is because people are aware that I'd go out and destroy their lives," Treat said.

To protect younger, more vulnerable lobbyists, Treat said, the process to field complaints must change.

"It's always been handled very quietly," she said. "Maybe it's time to be not so quiet."

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

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