As sexual harassment in politics investigations widen, California Assemblyman accused by six new women
Late one August night in 2010 at a bar, Sylvia Castillo slid into a booth next to Raul Bocanegra, who was then the chief of staff to California Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes. Bocanegra was a familiar face to Castillo, who worked as a coordinator for a student mentorship program in Sacramento.
She asked if he had seen a friend she was looking for and made small talk. Suddenly, “he pounced,” she said.
“He grabbed me with one hand, grabbed my head and shoved his tongue into my mouth,” Castillo said in an interview this month. “With his other hand, he put it up my dress. I put my hand down to stop him from trying to grab at my crotch.”
Just one year earlier, Bocanegra had been disciplined by the Legislature following allegations that he groped a fellow legislative staffer, Elise Flynn Gyore, at the same bar, Mix. When asked about the 2009 incident, which was not public until a Times report last month, Bocanegra said in a statement that the “unfortunate experience…was something I regret and learned from.”
Bocanegra issued a statement Monday morning that he will resign his seat at the end of the session in September and that he has suspended his reelection campaign. The Times had presented its findings to Bocanegra’s office Friday afternoon. His staff scheduled a Monday interview with the assemblyman and later canceled it.
Bocanegra, who is not married, did not deny any of the new allegations. As for the 2009 incident with Gyore, he said in his statement that he has “accepted responsibility for my actions” as they relate to that “regrettable encounter.”
“These news reports have since fueled persistent rumors and speculation, and I do not believe that this is in the best interest of my constituents to continue to serve next term,” he said. “This is a very difficult decision. But I know that it is the best decision for the Northeast Valley residents.”
In a separate statement to The Times, Bocanegra said he was requesting a legislative investigation rather than “adjudicate” the claims through the media.
The allegations come as women in various industries are coming forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, and as Bocanegra’s Democratic colleague, state Sen. Tony Mendoza, is under investigation over allegations of improper conduct toward a young female legislative fellow assigned to his office. He also has been subject of additional allegations.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a statement after this story was published he would move to expel Bocanegra should an investigation affirm the allegations.
None of the women formally reported their experiences with Bocanegra at the time to police or through legislative channels. Former Fuentes staffer Jennifer Borobia recently filed a complaint with the Assembly Rules Committee alleging Bocanegra harassed her starting in 2009 when she worked in Fuentes’ district office.
Borobia said reading The Times’ story about Gyore’s complaint made her feel sick. She said she feels guilty for not coming forward with her story years earlier and believes she has a responsibility now to speak out about harassment in California politics.
“Knowing that culture is learned and handed down, I don’t want this type of culture to be continued,” she said.
The district office
Borobia was in her early 20s when she worked with Bocanegra in Fuentes’ Arleta district office. Bocanegra, who was Fuentes’ chief of staff from 2007 until 2012 when he was first elected to the Assembly, was a frequent presence in the local office whenever Fuentes was there, she said.
Borobia said that when she was hired in 2008, she was in awe of Fuentes, Bocanegra and their tight-knit political alliance, which included now-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Rep. Tony Cardenas and L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez, all Democrats. They come from the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, which includes Sylmar, Sunland, Tujunga and parts of North Hollywood. Latinos made up more than half of the electorate in the Assembly district in the last election.
“I looked up to them. I believed in what they were doing. As Latinos coming from the Valley, they were relatable to me,” said Borobia, who had lived in the Valley since she was 9 years old. Being part of their team, she said, felt like being part of a family.
Borobia worked as an office assistant and case manager, helping constituents navigate state government bureaucracy. At first, her interactions with Bocanegra were pleasant and felt almost paternal, she said.
Starting around 2009 and continuing for multiple years, Borobia said Bocanegra began asking her out on dates via email and text. She said he would tell her she was pretty and make other comments about her appearance. She rejected the invitations, but worried rebuffing Fuentes’ chief of staff too strongly could threaten her job.
Borobia, now 30 and working as a county planner in Southern California, said the emails were sent from Bocanegra’s personal email address to a Yahoo account she no longer has access to. She left the office in August 2011.
Yolanda Anguiano, who worked as a field representative in Fuentes’ office from 2007 until 2010, said Borobia told her at the time about Bocanegra’s repeated overtures and how they made her uncomfortable.
Eventually Anguiano approached Gerardo Guzman, the district office director, who also is Martinez’s husband.
“I went to his office. I sat in front of him and I said, ‘This has to stop, Raul is harassing Jennifer and I’m sick and tired of it,’” Anguiano said. She said he seemed to take her concerns seriously and asked her what he could do. Anguiano said Guzman told her she could go to the Assembly Rules Committee and file a report.
Anguiano opted not to, fearing negative consequences for her political career. Now 35 and living in Los Angeles, she said she filed a report with the committee earlier this month outlining the complaints she heard from Borobia during her time in the office.
Guzman denied Anguiano’s account. He told The Times in an email that “no staff person came to me with complaints about Mr. Bocanegra’s behavior.”
In January 2015 Borobia emailed Bocanegra with condolences about his recent reelection defeat and upbeat memories of her time in the office. She said she struck a positive tone because she did not want him to think she was behind rumors of harassment allegations that surfaced in his 2012 Assembly campaign.
The house parties
It was early summer 2012 and about eight people who worked in Fuentes’ district office attended a celebratory lunch for Guzman’s birthday at Octopus in Burbank. Alcohol was flowing freely. Camille Pili-Jose was feeling uneasy about how much her co-workers were drinking during work hours. Her nervousness grew, she said, as the group decamped to Guzman’s house in San Fernando to continue to socialize. Bocanegra at the time was running to succeed Fuentes in the state Assembly, a race he would win that November.
Pili-Jose, who from 2011 through 2012 worked in the local community as a field representative for Fuentes, said her colleagues were taking shots of Tanqueray gin and encouraged her to join in. Bocanegra was standing to her side. After some resistance, she raised a full shot glass to her lips. Just as she was about to drink, she said, Bocanegra laid his hand on the front of her stomach. She said she was so shocked by the unexpected touch, she spit out the gin. Pili-Jose, now 30, told a friend at the time about what happened. The friend confirmed Pili-Jose’s description of the incident.
Gabriela Correa, another Fuentes field representative who worked for the assemblyman from 2011 until 2012, also saw the encounter. She told The Times that Pili-Jose made it clear, verbally and with her body language, that the touch was unwanted.
Later that afternoon, Correa, Guzman and Bocanegra took a colleague home. Correa said that when she and Bocanegra were standing in the garage attached to the staffer’s apartment complex, he removed a bracelet from her wrist, slipped it in his front pants pocket and told her to retrieve it. She said she refused, and a few minutes later asked Guzman to get it back from Bocanegra.
Guzman did not respond to a question about the alleged bracelet incident.
Correa, now 29, told a college friend about the experience soon after it happened. The friend confirmed that account.
Both Pili-Jose and Correa said the experience soured them on their jobs. They started taking their duties for their colleague Bocanegra’s Assembly campaign — which they volunteered for after work hours — less seriously.
The women said that not long after the house party, Fuentes met with them to raise concerns about what he said was unsatisfactory campaign work. Pili-Jose and Correa said they told Fuentes about Bocanegra’s behavior at Guzman’s house. They said that in his response, Fuentes was focused on the fact that alcohol had been present.
“I felt he was trying to convince me I was wrong because I was drunk. But I was not,” said Pili-Jose, who now works in administrative support at a state college.
The women did not file complaints at the time with the Assembly Rules Committee. Correa said she felt uninformed on how the process worked, in part because she did not work in the Capitol. Fuentes’ reaction further discouraged her.
“We told our boss, and that’s how it was taken by him,” said Correa, who went on to work in human resources and is now a law student. “I felt defeated at that point.”
Fuentes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Guzman said in the email to The Times he was “completely unaware that an incident allegedly occurred in my house.” He said he “was not present in the setting where it allegedly occurred, and was never told about it.”
Martinez, the councilmember married to Guzman, called on Bocanegra to “immediately resign.” In a statement issued several hours after this story first published, Martinez did not address the gatherings the women alleged took place at her home.
“For too long, women and men have been subjected to sexual harassment and assault by people in power, and they have felt powerless to stop it,” Martinez said. “That has to end.”
Another Fuentes staffer said she also had an unwanted encounter with Bocanegra in the summer of 2012, soon after he had come in first in the June 5 primary. The woman, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Heather, said the incident occurred after an all-staff lunch with lots of alcohol. The group moved to Guzman’s house to continue partying.
Heather said she was standing in the kitchen speaking to a co-worker when Bocanegra came up behind her and ran his hands down her neck and along the sides of her breasts before grabbing her backside with both hands. She said the incident was witnessed by her male co-worker, who is now a staffer for Martinez. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Heather spoke about what happened with two people — one several months later, the other several years ago. Each confirmed Heather had told them that Bocanegra had groped her.
Heather said she was shocked and left the house immediately. Soon after, she said, she got a voicemail from Bocanegra. The message was: “Hey Heather, Raul here. I wanted to apologize, so when you have a moment, can you call me?” The Times confirmed that the phone number identified on the July 7, 2012, voicemail is the same phone number Bocanegra listed on his official candidate statement in 2012.
Heather said Bocanegra apologized in person a couple of days later, blaming his alcohol consumption. She said she was heartbroken that he would behave that way, particularly during a campaign to elect him to office. Bocanegra became distant, she said.
The incident with Bocanegra coincided with a troubled period in Heather’s personal life, including a tumultuous break-up with an ex-fiancé. She acknowledged she was in a fragile mental state during the months she worked for Fuentes. In fall 2012, she pleaded no contest to one charge of filing a false police report, a misdemeanor, after she reported a threatening email that she said was from her ex. She was soon fired from the Assembly.
“I wanted the earth to swallow me up,” Heather said. Eventually, she found an opportunity to move out of state. Now 30, she works as a political operative.
Heather said she was upset by Bocanegra’s statement to The Times on Oct. 27 that he had learned from the incident with Gyore. She said she would feel more sympathy for him if he had been more forthright about his behavior.
“I don’t wish anything bad for him. I’m not out for anything,” she said. “I just want people to be aware this culture is going on.”
Castillo said her jaw dropped when she read Gyore’s account in The Times last month, seven years since her encounter with Bocanegra in the booth at Mix.
“It’s the same exact scenario, the same exact place, apparently the same time of day,” said Castillo, now 34 and working as a women’s heath advocate.
Mix is a popular watering hole for legislators and staff in Sacramento. Castillo said she previously met with Bocanegra — at that point still Fuentes’ chief of staff — about a mentoring program she worked for that summer. It was a “strictly professional” meeting, she said.
When she saw Bocanegra that night in the booth where Castillo had earlier gathered with friends, she thought he could help locate her friend. Castillo said he asked how her night was going and as she began to reply, he “pounced” with the unwanted touching.
“I felt like a sitting duck,” she said.
Castillo said she shoved him away and ran out of the club, calling a friend in a panic. Her friend confirmed the call and said she sounded distraught.
The friend said he made her repeat what happened several times. He said she told him repeatedly, “Felipe Fuentes’ chief of staff fondled me.”
Gyore’s alleged experience with Bocanegra at Mix, a few blocks from the statehouse, was similar. She said on April 29, 2009, he reached his hands inside her shirt “very aggressively,” in an area of the bar where people were dancing.
Another woman told The Times that Bocanegra improperly made a move on her at Mix — this time on Aug. 6, 2014, when he was an assemblyman.
The woman, a Sacramento-based lobbyist who did not want to be identified for fear of political repercussions, said she was chatting with Bocanegra at an after-hours environmental lobbying reception. She said she saw socializing with a legislator with the power to influence legislation as a routine part of her job as a lobbyist.
At one point during their conversation on the outdoor patio, he pointed at something in the distance, directing her to look that way. The lobbyist said when she turned her head back, Bocanegra tried to kiss her. The attempt was clumsy, and he ended up kissing her chin instead of her lips, she said.
“He didn’t physically harm me, but still what he did was inappropriate,” the lobbyist said.
Maneuvering away from the assemblyman as he tried to get her to dance with him, she hid in the bathroom for 15 minutes, she said, and when she came outside, Bocanegra was gone.
Smith contributed reporting from Los Angeles. Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report from Sacramento.
5 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Martinez and Speaker Anthony Rendon.
This article was originally published at 12:20 p.m.
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