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Molestation lawsuit adds some pressure to Rep. Cárdenas’ reelection bid

Rep. Tony Cárdenas
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles), pictured at a town hall last year, has been accused of molesting a teenager in 2007. His attorney has called the allegations “100% categorically untrue.”
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas ran away with his reelection contest, defeating his challenger by nearly 50 percentage points in his San Fernando Valley district.

The Democrat from Panorama City is heading into another campaign, but this time with a very serious threat to his political future: a Jane Doe lawsuit alleging he molested a 16-year-old girl.

Cárdenas acknowledged this week that he is the unnamed defendant in that case and has vehemently denied the allegations. And so far, only two local political figures — Los Angeles school board member Kelly Gonez and Joe Shammas, one of his opponents in the June 5 primary — have suggested on social media that he step down.

Nevertheless, Cárdenas’ bid to defend himself against the lawsuit will almost certainly put new pressures on his campaign.

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“Having this kind of development materialize just weeks before an election is sort of like strapping a 200-pound rock to the candidate’s back,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and editor of the nonpartisan election guide California Target Book.

California Rep. Tony Cárdenas denies uncorroborated allegations of molesting teenage girl »

Patricia Glaser, an attorney for Cárdenas, said Thursday that the allegations in the lawsuit, which was filed last week, are “100% categorically untrue.” Glaser described Cárdenas’ accuser as the daughter of a “disgruntled former employee” who “may be the victim of manipulation.”

Since that statement was issued, several Southern California politicians have been silent on the lawsuit, including Reps. Brad Sherman, Ted Lieu and Salud Carbajal, whose representatives did not return requests for comment from The Times. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, currently focused on flipping vulnerable GOP-held districts and retaking the House of Representatives, did not comment.

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One of the few to address the lawsuit was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said the allegations are “deeply troubling” but that he is waiting to hear all the facts.

“I think we have to let that play out,” he said at a briefing with reporters.

The lawsuit alleges that the assault took place in January 2007, when Cárdenas was a Los Angeles city councilman. The suit claims that an unnamed elected official, identified as John Doe, gave the girl a cup of water with a “peculiar taste” at a Los Angeles golf course.

The lawsuit said the girl collapsed and the elected official later molested her in a car.

According to the suit, Cárdenas was once close to the girl’s family.

The Times has been unable to corroborate the allegations, and no public evidence has emerged to support them. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department said the agency has no active investigations of Cárdenas.

The Times made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit. The Times typically does not disclose the identities of alleged victims of sexual crimes.

The lawsuit is only the latest in a series of disruptions on the political scene in the east San Fernando Valley.

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In 2016, Los Angeles City Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who represented Sylmar and Pacoima, resigned partway through his first term so he could become a lobbyist in Sacramento. Last year, state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) stepped down after The Times reported that six women had accused him of making unwanted physical advances or communications.

In February, Sun Valley-based campaign consultant Gerardo Guzman — a political aide to Bocanegra and husband of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez — was fired from his job in the state Assembly after a complaint was filed against him and Bocanegra.

The probe found that Guzman had engaged in inappropriate conduct, including discussions of sex toys with staffers. Guzman said at the time that he was “deeply regretful” about his conduct and that the incidents had occurred before he quit drinking in 2015.

In March, a legislative panel in Sacramento sent a letter of reprimand to Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) instructing him to stop initiating hugs, concluding they made people feel uncomfortable. Hertzberg apologized and said he “never meant anything other than just warmth and human connection.”

In addition, federal law enforcement agencies have also conducted inquiries into the political activities of Valley politicians, issuing subpoenas to Cárdenas and Martinez staffers in 2015. Asked if those inquiries have ended, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles declined to comment on Friday.

Cárdenas, a Democrat, represents a district where more than 54% of registered voters are Democrats and just 12.7% are Republican. Another 28% have no party preference. He faces four opponents in the primary: Benito Bernal, a Republican and former union leader; Angelica Maria Dueñas, a human resources manager and Green Party member; Juan Rey, a mechanic who’s registered as an independent, and Shammas, who also ran for the seat in 2016.

In 2016, Shammas finished third in the primary with 11% of the vote. In this year’s contest, he has raised less than $10,000 and has just under $1,000 in cash in the bank, according to federal campaign fillings.

Shammas, also a Democrat, questioned whether the congressman would be able to properly serve his district while responding to such “egregious” allegations. Gonez, the school board member, said she is “deeply disturbed by the pattern of elected officials in the San Fernando Valley who have been exposed for assaults and harassment against women.”

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Josh Pulliam, a longtime political consultant for Cárdenas, responded in an email to The Times, saying “it is disappointing, but becoming sadly predictable, whenever a politician or in this case a fringe candidate, exploits horrific allegations in the #MeToo movement for shameless self-promotion.”

Pulliam said that in the past day, Cárdenas has received “an outpouring of support” from teachers, school principals and people who “care deeply about the Valley’s future.”

Cárdenas has many advantages, including nearly $447,000 in the bank for his campaign, according to records through the end of March. Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, said he views Cárdenas as a formidable presence, despite the pending lawsuit.

“He is rock solid in his district. There’s no question about that,” he said. “But under unusual circumstances, this could be one of those potentially rock solid districts that can break apart.”

Times staff writers Javier Panzar, Melanie Mason, Christine Mai-Duc, Sarah D. Wire and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser


UPDATES:

7:08 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and interviews with consultants.

This article was originally published at 2:35 p.m.


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