A leading women's rights organization demanded Tuesday that state Sen. Richard Polanco be removed from a legislative leadership post for conduct that resulted in a $117,200 settlement paid by the state to one of his former employees.
Allowing the Los Angeles lawmaker to keep the job of Democratic majority floor leader would signal to female employees of the Legislature that "their right to be free from gender discrimination may matter less than protecting a senator," said the California affiliate of the National Organization for Women.
The demand was in a letter to Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco). It was signed by California NOW President Helen Grieco and diversity coordinator Josie Martinez.
They said they found much in the veteran lawmaker's record to praise, but "we believe that allowing Sen. Polanco to retain his leadership position damages the image of the Legislature."
"The type of behavior that led to the $117,200 settlement in October 1998 between the Senate Rules Committee and one of its employees is unacceptable and should not be condoned," Grieco and Martinez said.
News reports earlier this month disclosed that the Rules Committee, the governing committee of the Senate, had reached the settlement with a former Polanco assistant, Karri Velasquez.
Terms of the agreement, the nature of her complaint and other details were kept confidential. However, the document earmarked $102,500 in compensation for unspecified "emotional and physical injuries" to Velasquez. It also provided her with back wages and paid leave.
In return, she resigned her $42,500-a-year job as an assistant to Polanco.
In 1996, Velasquez filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging that she had been transferred from her job for refusing to "respond to Polanco's advances." She quickly dropped the complaint, indicating that she intended to sue instead.
Subsequently, she turned to the Rules Committee with a complaint. Sources have said it alleged that she was unfairly passed over for promotion and discriminated against by a senior staffer, who is the mother of the married lawmaker's out-of-wedlock child.
Burton said he had not read the letter and would not discuss it.
Polanco, who has served behind the president pro tem since February 1998, also declined to comment. "Regrettably, due to the fact this is a confidential personnel issue, the senator is unable to comment," said a spokesman for Polanco.
The senator has led policy initiatives on such issues as gun control and overseen the election of Democrats to the Senate. He has built a national reputation for recruiting and electing Latino candidates to office.
Citing the state settlement's confidentiality clause, Gregory P. Schmidt, who signed the agreement as executive officer of the Rules Committee, indicated last week that the issues brought to the committee were not the same as those alleged in Velasquez's complaint to the fair employment department. He has declined to discuss her complaint or the settlement further.
In their letter to Burton, the California NOW officers said they had closely followed news coverage of the settlement and were troubled that Polanco continues as Democratic floor leader.