With state Sen. Tony Mendoza threatening to end his leave of absence next week, Senate leader Kevin De León warned Wednesday that the lawmaker will be suspended if he returns to work before the completion of an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.
Mendoza, a Democrat from Artesia, was interviewed for two and a half hours Tuesday by private attorneys hired by the Senate to look into allegations by former staff members that he acted inappropriately with three female aides.
He has notified the Senate that he may return Monday, or Feb. 1 at the latest.
“If he comes back to the Capitol before the investigation is completed, a suspension will happen,” De León told The Times during a break in a closed-door Rules Committee meeting about Mendoza on Wednesday.
Sources say the Democratic leader has been calling members rounding up votes for a suspension. De León said he hopes a vote will not be necessary.
“Common sense and decency should prevail, and he should stay away from the Capitol until the investigation is completed,” said De León, a Democrat from Los Angeles and former housemate of Mendoza’s.
Investigators are looking into allegations that Mendoza invited a former Senate fellow to his home after hours to discuss résumés and asked female aides to accompany him on out-of-town business and political trips.
Mendoza has denied acting improperly and made the same argument in his lengthy interview with private lawyers investigating the allegations. The interview occurred at the office of Mendoza’s attorney in Sacramento.
“Sen. Mendoza cooperated and answered all the questions to the best of his ability regarding events — some of which occurred over 10 years ago,” said Robert Alaniz, a spokesman for the senator.
However, some of the witnesses in the case have not yet met with investigators, and legislators Wednesday estimated the investigation may not be completed until mid-February at the earliest.
The Senate Rules Committee met Wednesday in closed session to discuss the timing of the investigation. The Senate Democratic Caucus also met this week to discuss options if Mendoza insists on returning early from a voluntary leave.
“People were asking around trying to get our opinions on what we would do if there was a suspension vote — either with pay or without pay,” said one lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Democratic Caucus has asked that no statement be made. “People are counting the votes right now.”
The legislator would vote for a paid suspension if it came to a vote, saying: “The reason for suspension is that some of the victims are still working in this building and it [his return] represents intimidation to those who are here. It looks like he is in control and has all the power.”
Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) has previously called for Mendoza to resign from office, and Republican Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford has introduced a resolution seeking Mendoza’s expulsion.
Some lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), have been particularly critical of Mendoza for continuing to hold events with constituents in his district during his leave of absence. Complicating matters, Mendoza is running for reelection.
Uncertainty over Mendoza’s return has been fed by mixed messages from the senator.
Mendoza had a notice published Jan. 4 in the Senate Daily Journal, saying he had “agreed to take a temporary leave of absence commencing today through not later than January 26, 2018.”
However, a letter from his attorney dated on the same day said the leave of absence would end Feb. 1.
“Senator Mendoza will continue to represent his district, but has temporarily agreed to step aside from his committee chairmanship and memberships,” said the letter from attorney Cassandra Ferrannini. “Effective Feb. 1, 2018, Senator Mendoza will resume his Senate position in full, including his committee chairmanship and membership.”