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Sexual misconduct allegations leave a swath of Los Angeles County without representation in the Capitol

Sexual misconduct allegations leave a swath of Los Angeles County without representation in the Capitol
Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens). (Associated Press)

For Martha Camacho-Rodriguez, a special-education teacher and a trustee of Cerritos Community College, a monthly education roundtable convened by her Assembly member provided crucial insight into legislation, grant opportunities and other important things happening in Sacramento.

This month, she was hoping for an update about the state budget and a chance to pitch a bill on aiding families of children killed by law enforcement. But the meeting was abruptly canceled when her legislator, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), announced she would take an unpaid leave during an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

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"It was super disappointing," Camacho-Rodriguez said. "At the roundtable she puts out information, direct contacts, things coming up for scholarships and internships. For a lot of our youth, that is super important."

Camacho-Rodriguez and other residents of a swath of southeastern Los Angeles County now find themselves with the unhappy distinction of being without a representative in both the state Senate and Assembly. Their legislators, Garcia and Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), both have gone on leave after facing public allegations of improper conduct.

Outside investigators concluded it was “more likely than not” that Mendoza made unwanted flirtatious or sexually suggestive advances toward six women as a state senator and during his past tenure in the Assembly, according to a summary report released Tuesday afternoon. His Senate colleagues are set to consider the report’s findings and potential disciplinary action later this week.

Both accused lawmakers find themselves on uncharted terrain over how much — if at all — they can perform their duties while under investigation. And their constituents face uncertainty about who is advocating for their interests in Sacramento.

Former legislator Martha Escutia, a Democrat who represented the area in the Assembly and Senate from 1992 until 2006, said the lack of representation is especially worrisome for a community where civic engagement is middling but its challenges, such as poverty and pollution, are substantial.

“It’s a district that is very low-maintenance but very, very high-need,” Escutia said. “It definitely needs a legislator that is on the ball from day one.”

The overlap between the Mendoza and Garcia districts is significant. More than 94% of Garcia’s district lies within Mendoza’s state Senate boundaries, including the cities of Downey, Cerritos and Pico Rivera. That leaves roughly 440,000 people without representation.

Mendoza was the first of the two to go on leave, after allegations emerged last November that he harassed three former aides. After the Senate initiated an inquiry, Mendoza, who has denied the accusations, publicly sparred with his colleagues over returning to work. He ultimately agreed to a month-long paid leave in January, and the Senate voted to extend that absence.

Meanwhile, Mendoza has sued the Senate over the investigation process. His co-litigant is Roger Bagne, a constituent who says the Senate’s handling of the matter has denied him representation in the 32nd Senate District.

“I’m frustrated that my fellow neighbors and I have been left without representation just to fit in with election politicking,” Bagne said in a statement provided by the senator.

Garcia announced she would go on voluntary unpaid leave earlier this month, shortly after she was accused of making inappropriate sexual advances toward two men. She denied wrongdoing but said she would step aside “so as not to serve as a distraction or in any way influence the process of this investigation.” (Since then, four other ex-staffers, three of them anonymous, have alleged she acted inappropriately in the office, including consuming alcohol and raunchily discussing sex.)

Other districts have been stung by the newfound focus on sexual misconduct in the Capitol. Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) and Matt Dababneh (D-Woodland Hills) resigned their Assembly seats after facing accusations of harassment, which they both deny. Special elections to replace them are scheduled for this spring.

While those vacancies will be filled on a clearly defined timeline, there has been less certainty about what’s happening with Mendoza and Garcia. Before the Friday announcement by the Senate, there was no indication of when the Mendoza investigation would be concluded. The Assembly says there is no set time frame to complete the Garcia inquiry.

Downey City Councilman Fernando Vasquez said the dual investigations hurt the reputation of southeast Los Angeles County — a sprawling string of small cities, many of which have made the news because of public corruption scandals.

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“This certainly doesn’t help us in any way,” Vasquez said. “Right now we have no state representation at all, which is really a disservice to our residents.”

Operations in the members’ offices haven’t ceased completely. Garcia’s district office, located in an office building in Downey’s bustling main drag next to a Porto’s Bakery, was open Friday to receive constituents. A Garcia aide greeted a reporter who stopped by Friday afternoon in person, saying the staff was still working with constituents who might have trouble dealing with state agencies.

“The offices are still open for business for the constituents we represent,” said Teala Schaff, Garcia’s spokeswoman.

It was harder to gauge the goings-on at Mendoza’s district office, located in a Cerritos business park next to the 605 Freeway and across the street from a high school. The blinds were drawn, separating his staff from the waiting room. An aide only spoke to a reporter through a intercom with an outward pointing camera. She directed all questions to Mendoza’s spokesman, who did not respond to requests for comment.

The two legislators have taken distinct approaches to their leaves of absence. Mendoza has continued to make public appearances and draft legislation, introducing 19 bills just last week. His office said the bill introductions were cleared with Senate officials.

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Garcia, meanwhile, has canceled appearances, including planned opening remarks at an environmental health symposium in Los Angeles on Monday. She has stopped introducing bills.

That has left interest groups partnering with Garcia on issues rushing for contingency plans. The Environmental Working Group was planning to sponsor a bill with Garcia that would increase the state’s role in responding to lead exposure in workers. When she went on leave, the group had one week to find a new legislator to work with before the bill introduction deadline passed.

“When I found that out, I scrambled to find another author,” said Bill Allayaud, the organization’s lobbyist. He ultimately got San Jose Democrat Ash Kalra to carry the bill in the Assembly.

The region may end up most acutely feeling its lack of representation as dollars are doled out from landmark legislative programs, such as the $7.5-billion water bond approved by voters in 2014 or revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade auction.

Escutia said the district needs legislators to fight for funds to clean up air pollution along the 710 Freeway and groundwater cleanup to ensure cleaner drinking water.

“When we don't have representation, we're denied a voice at the table when those type of decisions are being made,” she said.

11:03 a.m.: This article was updated with data on the number of people without representation.

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the summary findings of a Senate investigation into Mendoza’s conduct.

This article was originally published at 10:25 am.

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