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

Sexual harassment hearings come as California Capitol is roiled by accusations and a resignation
Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima). left, resigned Monday after facing sexual harassment allegations, while state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), also facing harassment accusations, was stripped of his leadership posts. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Sexual harassment allegations continued to roil the California political landscape Monday, as one Democratic legislator announced his immediate resignation and another was stripped of key posts by his colleagues.

The dramatic developments set the stage for the first legislative examination of the issue since it engulfed the state Capitol six weeks ago. The focus on sexual harassment — propelled by high-profile allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo social media movement — began with an open letter from more than 140 women denouncing a "pervasive" culture of misconduct in state government. The missive did not identify any legislators or others accused of misbehavior.

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In the weeks since, women came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior by both Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and state Sen. Tony Mendoza.

Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) submitted his resignation Monday morning, one week after The Times reported that six women had accused the legislator of unwanted physical advances or unwelcome communications. He is the first lawmaker to step down amid the current climate of heightened scrutiny over sexual harassment.

"One resignation...does not solve the problem," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said in a statement, vowing to continue working to "change the climate in the Capitol."

Tuesday's Assembly hearing to review how the chamber handles reports and investigations into harassment and discrimination claims will be the first by either legislative house on the existing reporting processes, which some women in state politics have called insufficient in guarding against misconduct.

Less than an hour after Bocanegra resigned, a Senate committee voted to suspend Mendoza (D-Artesia) from leadership positions, including a powerful committee chairmanship, pending the outcome of an external investigation into sexual harassment allegations made by three women.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said that the suspension, along with plans to hire an independent, outside law firm to investigate complaints of sexual harassment, is necessary to increase the safety of employees and protect whistleblowers.

"Today, the Senate Rules Committee showed that no lawmaker is immune from our zero-tolerance harassment policies," De León said in a statement after the vote. ''This is only one important step – the next is a full, independent investigation led by outside experts, with publicly reported findings."

The Times reported last month that Bocanegra was disciplined eight years ago as a legislative staffer after another staff member alleged he groped her.

Bocanegra told The Times in October that the 2009 incident was "something I regret and learned from." Three weeks later, The Times reported that six new women accused the assemblyman of unwanted sexual advances.

Hours before that story published, Bocanegra announced his intention to resign at the end of the legislative session next year. The protracted resignation was greeted with skepticism, even among Bocanegra's Democratic colleagues. Rendon initiated a legislative investigation and said if the accusations were found credible, he would seek Bocanegra's expulsion.

Lawmakers were circulating a letter demanding Bocanegra's immediate resignation.

"Well-documented accounts of your reckless and predatory behavior towards female legislative staff, campaign staff and advocates have made you unfit to serve. ...Your offer to resign more than ten months from now is not acceptable," read the letter, obtained by The Times. At least 35 Assembly members from both parties had agreed to sign it.

Bocanegra on Monday said his original intention was to resign immediately but in consultation with "community leaders," had decided to remain in order to avoid an expensive special election for Los Angeles County.

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After the holiday weekend, he accelerated those resignation plans but struck a defiant note about the accusations.

"Clearly, the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' has been temporarily lost in a hurricane of political opportunism among the self-righteous in my case — to the detriment of both the accuser and the accused," Bocanegra said in a statement.

Bocanegra said in the statement he is "not guilty" of sexual assault or workplace harassment. A spokesman for the assemblyman did not clarify when asked whether he was refuting the specific allegations reported by The Times. A spokesperson for Rendon said the investigation into those allegations will continue.

Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees internal operations of that chamber, held an emergency meeting Monday. The five-member committee voted without comment to suspend Mendoza as chairman of the Senate Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee and as a member of the state Commission for Economic Development and the California Workforce Development Board.

Mendoza, who did not attend Monday's meeting, has denied sexually harassing former employees and a young woman assigned to his office by the Senate Fellows program.

The burgeoning scandals have increased the pressure for legislators to overhaul their procedures in dealing with harassment. An Assembly subcommittee to address discrimination, retaliation and harassment prevention — originally intended to offer a run-of-the-mill evaluation of processes — has been tasked with probing internal policies that have been revised only six times since their adoption in February 1993.

Staffers, lobbyists and experts are scheduled to testify Tuesday on how the chamber's existing procedures were crafted and how they are failing. The hearing begins at 1:30 p.m.

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), the panel's chair, said victims believe the current system leaves them with little recourse or confidentiality and fearful of retaliation.

She said the state Assembly needs to establish more warnings, revise its expulsion process and ensure a new reporting procedure protects victims while providing those accused with ways to answer to the charges.

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"I think we need to make it very clear what we expect from high-ranking staff and members and make it clear when ethical lines are crossed," she said.

The subcommittee plans to hold at least three special hearings through the end of January.

Adama Iwu, head of government relations in the western states for Visa, is among the lobbyists and staffers demanding that the Legislature stop investigating itself.

"Are they independent if I hire them to investigate me and report back to me what they found on me?" asked Iwu, who organized the We Said Enough campaign to bring attention to the issue of sexual harassment in politics.

She and other members of We Said Enough, some of whom are slated to testify Tuesday, are calling for a confidential hotline, trauma services for victims and whistleblower and anti-retaliation protections.

"Eliminating one or two bad actors does not change the environment," the group said in a statement on Twitter after Bocanegra's resignation. "We need systemic change."

Follow our coverage of the hearing at latimes.com/essentialpolitics.

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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