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It's time to unmask abusers in the Legislature and hit them where it hurts —  their pocketbooks and careers

It's time to unmask abusers in the Legislature and hit them where it hurts —  their pocketbooks and careers
Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), left, resigned and Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) has lost his leadership post amid harassment claims. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

How can powerful men be stopped from sexually harassing vulnerable young women? One way: Make the men vulnerable by making them pay.

If enough male predators were forced to pay with their careers, their wallets and their reputations — really pay — there’d be more of them keeping their mouths shut and their hands off.

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At least they’d stop to think twice.

This is especially true of politicians whose careers depend on their public images. To stay employed, after all, they must compete in popularity contests.

In other high-profile fields — entertainment, media — alleged harassers recently have been getting fired soon after victims went public with accusations.

In politics, the creeps normally can be fired only by voters. That must wait until the next election. Meanwhile, the political system usually does its best to stall token in-house investigations and cover up any embarrassing findings. Culprits too often aren’t revealed. And victims frequently lose their jobs.

Lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who has told reporters that she was trapped in a bar bathroom last year by a legislator who masturbated in front of her, told a legislative subcommittee Tuesday: “Simply by being the victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault … a woman becomes evidence of wrongdoing on the part of her perpetrator. And the easiest way to get rid of that evidence is to get rid of the woman.”

If you’re a legislative staffer, this can mean being shuffled off to another job or even being fired. Perhaps there’ll be a financial payoff with the condition of confidentiality.

For a lobbyist, it can mean being frozen out of the Capitol. Lopez has not disclosed her legislator-abuser’s name, she says, for fear of retaliation and loss of Capitol connections.

“I know that people will whisper behind my back,” the lobbyist told a sexual harassment subcommittee of the Assembly Rules Committee. “I know that people will snicker at me as I walk by. Women have an instinctive desire to hide what has happened to us. It’s because we recognize that if anyone finds out … our own careers may be in danger.”

And that’s unfortunate because the only way to deter politician-predators is to publicly expose them and let the voters know how they misbehave. Also, if there’s any settlement at all, force the perpetrator to pay out of his personal pocketbook — not the Legislature’s taxpayer-fed till, or the politician’s special interest-fueled campaign account.

The subcommittee hopes to change the Capitol’s rules against sexual harassment into something understandable, equitable and just.

The first third of the six-hour hearing amounted to a clumsy attempt by Rules Committee officials to make sense of the current flexible policy. It was revealed that the Assembly doesn’t even keep track of complaints, only investigations.

Legislative leaders also don’t normally disclose the names of those being investigated. The Times recently asked both houses for details, and was told only that there had been 31 investigations of alleged sexual harassment in the last 10 years — 15 in the Senate and 16 in the Assembly. The investigation results were not provided.

The Times was informed that there had been 15 personnel settlements resulting in payouts totaling more than $1 million. But officials did not disclose how many of those involved sexual harassment.

The Legislature has exempted itself from public record laws that it has imposed on other government entities. Clearly, state lawmakers should be as transparent as they require other public officials to be.

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Most of the subcommittee hearing involved a thorough scolding by women crusading for a safe workplace and attorneys who handle sexual harassment cases. Some of the women were harassment victims themselves.

It all started in October with more than 140 women — legislators, staffers, lobbyists and political consultants of both parties — signing an open letter denouncing the “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment that pollutes the state Capitol.

One accused assemblyman, Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), resigned the day before the hearing. Another alleged harasser, Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), was stripped of a committee chairmanship by the Senate leadership.

“What everyone here knows is that we have rapists in this building. We have molesters among us,” testified Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus and daughter of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “There are perpetrators, enforcers and enablers in this building.”

“Rapists” is a strong accusation. But amazingly, I didn’t hear anyone — male or female — challenging it.

After the hearing, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), the subcommittee chair, told me: “The more I think about it, there needs to be a way we’re not just investigating ourselves. It needs to be done by a quasi-independent body.

“You can’t leave punishment just up to [legislative] leadership. And there needs to be pre-prescribed penalties.”

She acknowledged what most outsiders instinctively know: Legislators can’t police themselves. They’re too dependent on each other for votes. And politics gets in the way. Foxes can’t guard the henhouse.

The Senate previously announced it will hand off future sexual harassment investigations to an independent outfit to be named later.

Friedman also said the perpetrators should be publicly exposed because “it’s important for the voters to know.”

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) announced he’ll introduce legislation to require abusers to pony up personally for settlements.

“Why should taxpayers be on the hook for sexual harassment payouts?” he asked.

They shouldn’t. And the abusers should be unmasked. Only then will you see fear in their eyes.

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