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Woman who accused Democrat Gil Cisneros of harassment says it was a 'misunderstanding'

Woman who accused Democrat Gil Cisneros of harassment says it was a 'misunderstanding'
Gil Cisneros, a Democrat running in the 39th Congressional District, speaks at a candidate forum in January. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A woman recanted her allegation of sexual harassment against a Democratic House candidate on Monday, blunting a major line of attack that a conservative super PAC had been using against Gil Cisneros in a key California race.

Melissa Fazli, who had accused Cisneros of making inappropriate comments to her at a state party convention in February, tweeted Monday that she met with the candidate over the weekend and realized there had been a “HUGE misunderstanding.” She demanded that the Congressional Leadership Fund take down its “vile” ads that were partly based on her accusation.

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Fazli published the allegation in an open letter in May, when she was running as a Democrat for a state Assembly seat in the area. Fazli alleged at the time that Cisneros had suggested they go to a hotel room together and that he later made comments that could have been interpreted as “pay for play.”

The development could kneecap the Congressional Leadership Fund’s main attack strategy in the 39th Congressional District, where Cisneros is running against Republican Young Kim for a House seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).

The outside group has been blanketing the airwaves in Orange County with ads highlighting the alleged incident, calling it “wrong” and “disgusting” and borrowing #MeToo movement mantra by declaring, “Gil Cisneros, your time’s up.” The group has spent more than $1.5 million on ads in the district so far, according to campaign finance records.

Attorneys for the Cisneros campaign on Monday sent cease-and-desist letters to Facebook and TV stations where the ads are running.

In a joint statement released by the Cisneros campaign, Fazli denounced the ads and accused the super PAC of lying and “weaponizing my story for their own political gain.”

The statement raised questions over the about-face by Fazli. As recently as two weeks ago, Fazli called the advertisements “accurate” and said Cisneros and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “refused to take me seriously in May and this is a price they will pay.” Last week, Fazli emailed Cisneros’ opponent, saying “I would rather have a Republican Woman win than a creep like Gil.” Fazli said she sent the email out of frustration over Cisneros’ failure to respond but no longer feels that way after airing her concerns with Cisneros.

Not everyone’s buying that explanation.

Congressional Leadership Fund spokeswoman Courtney Alexander released a statement questioning whether it was “another example of a rich and powerful man using his power to intimidate a victim” and accused Cisneros of not taking the claims seriously until now.

Others on social media wondered whether Fazli had been pressured or paid to recant.

“There was no payoff, there was no bribe,” said Nic Jordan, Cisneros’ campaign manager. “This was just an agreement of a misunderstanding.” Fazli confirmed to The Times that there was no discussion about money, campaign donations or endorsements for any future race.

In a phone interview, Fazli declined to elaborate on how her original allegation could be chalked up to a misunderstanding.

"When somebody doesn't communicate with you, it makes you even angrier and upset," Fazli said.

Fazli said she is a sexual assault survivor, an experience she suggested helped color how she perceived Cisneros' actions. "In his mind it was one thing, and in my mind it was something different." Asked to elaborate, Fazli referred The Times back to her joint statement with Cisneros.

Jordan said the six-month episode had been a costly lesson in how not to handle such a situation, particularly in light of the intense national focus on the hearings over sexual assault allegations against a Supreme Court nominee.

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Until this week, under the advice of former campaign manager Orrin Evans, Cisneros had maintained a laser focus on denying Fazli’s accusations from afar and offering testimonials from a list of witnesses who said her version of events could not be true. The candidate never met with Fazli or addressed her claims directly.

But after watching the hearings in which high court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and accuser Christine Blasey Ford testified, Cisneros “came to a realization that he felt wrong for essentially not allowing Melissa the courtesy to meet and speak,” Jordan said. “Seeing the hypocrisy of how things were handled at the national stage led to an internal realization that we can’t also seem to be hypocritical and ignore this.”

So when a supporter agreed to arrange a meeting between the two of them, Cisneros accepted.

“Ultimately, I thought it had gone too far,” said Mirvette Judeh, a realtor and Democratic operative who had previously criticized the Congressional Leadership Fund for running the Cisneros ads online, where her children saw them multiple times. “It was purely me being disgusted by the fact that my children had seen these ads.”

Judeh said that because she knows Cisneros well, she concluded the situation must be a “complete misunderstanding” and decided to reach out to Fazli. When she realized the two had not spoken in person, she brokered a meeting between Fazli and Cisneros at her home Sunday evening.

“She was just hurt, because she felt completely ignored,” Judeh said of Fazli.

“We sat down and heard each other, found a clear case of misunderstanding and are both ready to move forward,” Cisneros said in the statement released by his campaign.

Evans stepped down as his campaign manager Monday.

7:10 p.m.: This article was updated with an email Fazli sent to Young Kim’s campaign last week and Fazli’s comment about it Monday.

This story was originally published at 6:15 p.m.

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