Harassment case puts US Senate candidate under spotlight

SACRAMENTO, Calif (AP) – News that a sitting California senator is being investigated for sexual harassment against a young female employee has put a fresh spotlight on a legislative leader this week as he begins a bid against the state’s first female US senator.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, heads the committee in charge of human resources employees who handle workplace complaints. De Leon also rents a room in the Sacramento home of Democratic Sen Tony Mendoza, the man accused of improper conduct, de Leon spokesman Anthony Reyes said.

Mendoza is accused of repeatedly inviting a young woman who worked in his office through a fellowship programme to the house, although she never went.

Mendoza said in a statement that he would never knowingly abuse his authority, though his statement didn’t address the allegation that he invited her to his home.

Late Saturday, the Sacramento Bee reported that a second young woman has accused Mendoza of behaving inappropriately toward her when she was a 19-year-old intern in his district office in 2008.

A spokesman for Mendoza said the woman’s allegations were “completely false,” the Bee reported.

The woman, now 28, came forward with her allegations after media reports this week of the Senate investigation into Mendoza’s reported behaviour toward the first woman, according to the Bee.

De Leon said through spokesmen that he did not know about the complaint against Mendoza or his alleged invitations to the young woman. De Leon’s allies have downplayed the two senators’ relationship.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin deLeon, D-Los Angeles, in Sacramento, California. – AP

But De Leon’s handling of impropriety at the Capitol will likely play a role in his US Senate bid against Sen Dianne Feinstein, one of California’s most prominent women in politics and a powerful US senator.

“It really does feel like we’re at this inflection point with sex harassment allegations where suddenly they’re being taken seriously,” said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University-Sacramento.

“It’s hard to imagine that Kevin de Leon’s bid will be completely untarnished by this revelation that someone close to him was accused of this kind of misbehaviour.”

The latest allegations against Mendoza, which come after nearly 150 women signed a letter three weeks ago calling harassment pervasive in the capital culture, shed further light on the Senate’s murky processes for investigating its own members.

After the initial outcry about harassment in mid-October, De Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon immediately pledged to review the Legislature’s policies. De Leon hired an outside investigator, and the Senate asked women to speak to her.

De Leon said at the time that “everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehaviour.”

That statement was made before the allegations about Mendoza became public. A month earlier, the Senate began investigating Mendoza, Senate Secretary Danny Alvarez confirmed.

A former employee of Mendoza’s complained to the Senate Rules Committee in September that the senator had repeatedly behaved inappropriately toward a young woman who worked for him through the Sacramento State fellows programme, said Micha Liberty, a lawyer for the employee.

That month, the employee and two others in Mendoza’s office were fired. The Senate and Liberty dispute the timing of the firings relative to the complaint.

Mendoza and Alvarez said the firings had nothing to do with the complaints. Liberty, though, said her client made clear she was accusing Mendoza of sexual harassment toward the fellow, and she was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement when she was fired. Liberty would not name her client and did not provide a copy of the confidentiality letter.

Mendoza said he did not know about the complaint until the he was contacted by the Sacramento Bee.

A spokesman for the university, Brian Blomster, said the university did not know either.

The Senate’s policy says the deputy secretary for human resources will meet with people named in complaints or those who may have knowledge, and will attempt to treat investigations as confidential.

Alvarez did not directly answer a question about when, if ever, de Leon would be notified about an investigation in his role as head of the Senate Rules Committee.