California #MeToo leaders say Capitol’s sexual harassment unit is too close to the Legislature

·6 min read

A network of activists who helped inspire the #MeToo movement in the California Capitol four years ago are calling for a series of improvements to the Legislature’s independent panel set up in 2019 to investigate workplace misconduct.

We Said Enough launched in October 2017 with a Los Angeles Times op-ed that called out a “pervasive” culture of abusive behavior by men in California’s institutions of power. More than 140 women, including several lawmakers and party leaders, signed the letter.

In the following months, three lawmakers resigned amid public sexual misconduct allegations and investigations.

A fourth, former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, resigned before a probe into his behavior was completed. He cited health problems for his departure. He and his father, Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, are now at the center of a USC bribery and corruption scandal.

The Capitol responded to the movement by releasing certain details of more than a decade of reports to members of the press and, in 2019, set up an independent review panel it dubbed the Workplace Conduct Unit to field new complaints. Democratic leaders at the time hailed the unit as a “national first, exceeding legal requirements and providing worker protection that is more comprehensive than any other state Legislature.”

Activists say problems persist.

“(The unit) is neither outside, nor independent from the California Legislature,” the group said in a press release. “Since the inception of the (Workplace Conduct Unit), WCU, We Said Enough has raised concerns that the system is not comprehensive enough to meet the needs of the government community, and that the system lacks independence and transparency.”

The group said it has received ongoing complaints from individuals who have tried to use the process and that a lack of public data makes it difficult to determine whether it is working.

On Monday, it launched a 33-question survey in order to review the effectiveness of the unit and identify where gaps remain in the reporting and investigating process. The questionnaire will close after one month, at which point coalition leaders will analyze the data to provide improvement recommendations.

The unit is under the umbrella of the Office of Legislative Counsel, which operates independently of the Legislature. The unit employs “qualified, trained investigators” who review complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation in a “prompt, independent, and objective” manner, according to its website.

“We welcome feedback from employees about their experience with the WCU process and are interested in reviewing the results of this survey,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a joint statement. “The Legislature is committed to helping improve the WCU process so that we can continue to change our culture to one that is built on respect, civility, and diversity for all.”

The Workplace Conduct Unit fielded 181 misconduct complaints in 2019, and 80 in 2020, when most employees were working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unit resolved 85 complaints in 2019, and 57 in 2020, according to a February note from legislative leadership.

The unit has had some impact. Former Assemblyman Bill Brough, R-Dana Point, for example, was stripped of his committee assignments last year after an investigation substantiated claims he inappropriately touched and offered individuals “political favors in exchange for sex.” He denied the allegations.

The process has also faced criticism. A former staffer for Sen. Bob Archuleta, D-Pico Rivera, claimed in a March sexual harassment lawsuit that the panel failed to conduct an investigation in a timely manner. She amended the complaint this summer to include the unit as a defendant.

We Said Enough co-founder and Sacramento lobbyist Samantha Corbin said the We Said Enough coalition is taking steps to address why the process hasn’t always worked in the transparent, confidential or timely manner its leaders say they had hoped.

The group already has a list of concerns that prompted the survey. Corbin said the unit fails to collect demographic data on who is filing complaints, which could help identify recurring patterns.

“....At the request of victims, We Said Enough has designed a survey that can be completed anonymously to better understand the efficacy and availability of existing reporting and investigation systems – including, but not limited to the California Legislative Workplace Conduct Unit,” the group’s statement says.

It wants to hear from those beyond the legislative community. Corbin and other coalition members have long advocated for a system to let anyone who works in and around the Capitol and government agencies report inappropriate behavior, including lobbyists and reporters, fellows and state workers.

“Transparency, demographic data, timeliness, independence and then, ultimately, coverage (of more people). Beyond members and staff themselves, who really can utilize the system, and frankly, who does the system serve?” Corbin said. “Its lack of independence begs the question, is it only there to serve the institution and its members?”

Corbin said the group decided to launch the survey after receiving numerous complaints that the process wasn’t helpful or lacked transparency.

“That’s certainly the perception of many folks in the Capitol community,” Corbin said. “Which is unfortunate because you want people to feel comfortable reporting incidents to an investigatory body.”

Some of the survey questions are open-ended. Others request more specific information, including demographics like race, age and gender. None require self identification, though it’s an option for open-ended portions.

The questions ask what role a respondent played in an incident, and for what agency, institution or branch of government a person worked. One question asks who the alleged perpetrator worked for, and another asks where the incident occurred: In a government building, at a political event, outside of the workplace, while telecommuting, at a fundraiser or at a restaurant or bar.

These are among the questions: What kind of misconduct occurred? How, and to whom, did you report the behavior? Did you experience retaliation, and was your confidentiality respected? Were you satisfied with the way the process was handled? Did you feel supported, or receive any mental health services? How long did it take, and what was the outcome? Did you have to hire a lawyer?

Corbin added that We Said Enough isn’t limiting the survey to figuring out how to strengthen the Workplace Conduct Unit. She said the coalition aims to understand how all political sectors can set up a workplace misconduct reporting process, including unions, political campaigns, local government, state boards, and lobbying firms.

Corbin said anyone who works in and outside government-related organizations should feel comfortable filling out the survey.

“We’ve had a lot of enthusiasm from folks we’ve reached out to when we told them we plan to do this,” Corbin said. “Simply because they don’t feel like there is a place for them to go or to give feedback.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting