California's Senate culture doesn't encourage women to file complaints. Here's how that could change

In 2014, reeling from scandals that led to the suspension of three Democratic senators, California’s state Senate changed its policies to make it easier for employees, members and the public to sound the alarm about misconduct.

A Times analysis of those rule changes shows a lack of follow-through to make reporting complaints more accessible. And the lawmaker who worked on changes in the Senate’s operations after that scandal says more could have been done.

Then-Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) suggested at the time that the move would lead to “positive cultural change and strengthen the integrity of this great institution."

But as the Capitol now soul-searches over allegations of widespread sexual harassment, the current legislative leaders acknowledge the culture still does not encourage women to file complaints. The Senate’s effort to reform itself three years ago — and how it fell short — is instructive as both legislative houses embark on a new round of self-improvement.

“Frankly we’ve got a lot more work to do as an institution,” said Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside).

In 2014, it was not sexual harassment that prompted the Senate’s introspection. Instead, the house was stung by a residency scandal involving one senator and corruption cases involving two others. All three were sentenced to jail time for their crimes, which were brought to light by external law enforcement investigations, instead of internal ethics complaints.

The two houses of the Legislature have their own procedures and administrative policies. So the trio of Senate scandals sparked a flurry of rule changes there, with no corresponding changes in the Assembly.

Roth was then chair of the Senate Legislative Ethics committee, which is responsible for formulating the standards of conduct for all members and employees. It also reviews complaints of violations of that standard, which specifically bars corrupt activity and instates a blanket prohibition on any activity that could “discredit” the Senate.

With the ethical blemishes on the Senate, Roth started a review of how people can file complaints for misconduct.

A retired Air Force major general and a longtime labor and employment attorney, Roth worked with a law firm to identify flaws in the Senate’s system for handling those complaints.

“The California Senate is like a stovepipe. It’s a vertical organization with a chain of command,” Roth said. “There’s a well-defined chain of command that has the potential to, frankly, stifle workplace complaints.”

Assemblyman was disciplined after woman claimed he groped her »

To make a formal complaint to the ethics committee, any person — including employees and members of the public — must come forward with a written complaint. That complaint would then be forwarded to the lawmaker or Senate employee to whom it related. The Senate also allows employees to make complaints with its human resources department. With both types of reporting, the person complaining must give his or her name.

Roth thought a process without anonymity could scare off those who wanted to alert others of bad behavior. He proposed creating an ombudsman position — one person who could field the more informal complaints, including oral and anonymous ones.

To ensure the ombudsman was truly independent, Roth wanted to limit the role to two-year terms and mandate the person could not be fired by anyone in the Senate unless he or she neglected the job.

The Senate ultimately created an ombudsman position in June 2014, but it differed from Roth’s proposal in several respects. The position was appointed by the Rules Committee — the official administrative body of the Senate helmed by the Senate leader — instead of the ethics chair.

Roth had sought an independent ombudsman; now he was concerned the position was overseen by the top of the chain of command. He was further concerned that the Senate appointed a longtime employee to the post. Cary J. Rudman then held two roles simultaneously: staff director to the ethics committee and ombudsman.

“In my view, it’s not really independent,” Roth said.

Steinberg, who was leader of the Senate at the time, said the rule revisions maintained independence where it mattered most: in the investigation of complaints.

“My view was that it’s our obligation to conduct independent investigations. We don’t conduct the investigations when there is a formal complaint internally; we hire the top-notch law firms,” said Steinberg, who is now mayor of Sacramento.

In his view, “the changes we made were accomplishing much of the same that Sen. Roth was advocating and talking about,” he said.

The rule changes adopted in June 2014 created the ombudsman position and a public telephone hotline to contact that person. As ombudsman, Rudman conducts ethics training for senators, officers and employees of the Senate, as well as lobbyists, in which he identifies himself as the ombudsman and explains the process for making informal complaints to him.

While the ombudsman is supposed to be a channel for public complaints, information about him is hard to find. He is not identified as the ombudsman on any Senate website. Nor is there a clearly marked public hotline phone number.

Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for Senate leader Kevin de León, said the Senate leader will work to “better publicize the ombudsman hotline,” and acknowledged “we need to do a better job educating people about their rights” by making that information publicly available.

The current scrutiny on reporting procedures has also breathed new life into a long-debated proposal to extend whistleblower protections to legislative staff.

Every year since 2014, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) has introduced a measure to close the loophole exempting the Legislature from state government whistleblower laws. The bill has always sailed through the Assembly with bipartisan support and then been blocked in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“It’s another illustration that the rules are for everyone else except the Legislature,” Melendez said, adding she’ll introduce the measure yet again.

“I can’t in good conscience say to those women, ‘You have to wait several more months,’ ” she said. “I think they've waited many years too long as it is.”

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the appropriations chairman, declined to comment. His office pointed to a committee analysis that said it was unclear if such protections could be granted to the non-union “at-will” employees who work for the Legislature.

Meanwhile, both legislative houses are striving to reexamine their policies. The Assembly will hold public hearings next month. The Senate hired the CPS HR Consulting firm to evaluate its procedures.

De León acknowledged the Senate has fallen short of its obligation to offer “the most effective anti-harassment policies and protections.”

“Unfortunately, as we’ve learned in recent days, the system doesn’t work if the employees it’s designed to protect don’t have complete trust and confidence in it,” he said in a statement, promising to replace or strengthen the Senate’s current procedures.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

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

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