Friedman to lead Assembly hearings on sexual harassment

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman had no idea a sexual harassment scandal was about to explode at the California Legislature when she was elected last year or that she would help lead the response.

Starting Tuesday, though, the first-term lawmaker and former movie producer began leading a series of public hearings aimed at cleaning up a culture at the Capitol that women say allows sexual harassment to go unchecked.

Friedman, a Glendale Democrat whose district includes Burbank, was appointed chairwoman of a subcommittee tasked with evaluating the Legislature’s anti-harassment policies and recommending ways to strengthen them.

She got the role in June, months before allegations of rampant harassment burst into public view.

Nationwide, dozens of politicians, Hollywood executives and actors, and media personalities are facing accusations of sexual misconduct, sparked by a wave of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

At the California Capitol, no specific incident appears to have spurred the creation of the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response other than a need for a once-a-decade update of the chamber’s policies. Nearly five months later, the Tuesday meeting was its first.

“I couldn’t tell you whether anybody suspected there would be issues,” Friedman said. But “we now have a committee primed and ready to go and take a deep dive into our policies and trainings.”

Skepticism persists about whether the Legislature can effectively police itself, following allegations of repeated bad behavior by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and Sen. Tony Mendoza, both Los Angeles-area Democrats.

Bocanegra is accused of groping or kissing numerous women without their consent over a period of years, even after he was reprimanded for such behavior in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported. Bocanegra, who has not denied the allegations, said he would not run for reelection. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced he would expel Bocanegra if an investigator verifies the new allegations.

The Senate, meanwhile, said it will hire an outside investigator to look into complaints, including claims that Mendoza invited a young woman from his office to his home and often held one-on-one meetings over drinks and dinner with another. His behavior was twice reported, once to the Assembly and once to the Senate. Mendoza has said he would never knowingly abuse his authority.

The legislature’s approach so far is “not very confidence-inspiring,” said Adama Iwu, a lobbyist for Visa who launched the campaign We Said Enough in October to spotlight pervasive harassment.

More than 150 female lobbyists, staff members, lawmakers and political consultants signed on to the movement. Iwu has criticized the Senate and Assembly for not working together.

Friedman plans to open her first hearing with a review of the Assembly’s existing harassment policies, including how complaints are investigated and discipline is determined. The policy says complaints can be handled by an employee’s supervisor, the rules committee or an external investigator, a process that critics call murky.

Friedman said she envisions taking testimony, perhaps confidentially, from women who have faced harassment as well as from advocacy groups and experts in areas such as employment law.

She said she also would like to conduct a forensic audit on the Assembly’s past handling of complaints and discuss requiring lawmakers to sign an ethical code of conduct that could make it easier to discipline those who break it.

“I think that we need a better policy about what we will and won’t tolerate as a Legislature,” she said. “There are things that are legal that are not ethical given our positions.”

As a first-term lawmaker, Friedman may not be the natural fit to lead a panel with such a monumental task. But she’s one of just three women assigned to the 12-member Rules Committee. Fellow Democrat Sabrina Cervantes is also in her first term. Republican Marie Waldron is the subcommittee co-chairwoman.

Friedman said her lack of entrenchment at the Legislature could be a good thing because she will be less hesitant to shine a light on wrongdoing.

She’s never witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol but said she was advised to avoid certain men. She’s also seen it in her prior line of work. Before running a small business and serving as mayor of the northern Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, Friedman worked for years as a Hollywood movie producer.

“Certainly in Hollywood — and also in politics — men run the show,” Friedman said.

The speaker, meanwhile, said the Assembly will refer allegations to outside legal firms to investigate.

“I hope more women will share any sexual harassment or abuse they have experienced,” Rendon said following the new allegations against Bocanegra. “The Assembly will take those complaints seriously.”