Sunday, October 29, 2017
WOMEN SEXUALLY HARASSED IN CALIFORNIA< Esp: SACRAMENTO The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia
The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia:
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SACRAMENTO — There were the demeaning personal chores she said her boss assigned her, like buying a shower curtain and blankets. And there was the time that he appeared at the door of his apartment with his pants open, she said, exposing himself to her when she went to pick him up for a vote.
Nancy Kathleen Finnigan had a long list of grievances from her time working for Steve Fox, at the time a State Assembly member from near Los Angeles. But when Ms. Finnigan, a legislative director, took her complaints to the staff of the Assembly Rules Committee, she felt like the one on trial. A meeting with a committee staff member and Mr. Fox began with Mr. Fox “berating and threatening” her over her job performance, Ms. Finnigan said. A month after she made her complaint, she was fired.
For Ms. Finnigan, who this year won a $100,000 settlement from the Assembly in a wrongful termination lawsuit that claimed harassment and retaliation, the experience confirmed a widespread grievance among women who work in one of the country’s most influential legislatures: that there is no safe place for them to go for help.
Nearly 200 women have signed a letter denouncing a culture of rampant sexual misconduct in and around the state government here in Sacramento. They complain of male lawmakers groping them, of male staff members threatening them and of a human resources system so broken that it is unable to give serious grievances a fair hearing.
In dozens of interviews, women — including legislative aides and lobbyists who said they had endured years of sexual harassment — said the flawed system had left them with few options to stop behavior that threatened their livelihoods and careers.
Sexual harassment has become the subject of public debate across the nation in recent days — from Hollywood to the news media — but has long been an ingrained if unacknowledged part of the culture of legislative bodies.
Since the disclosures about sexual harassment cases involving Harvey Weinstein, the powerful producer, there have been reports of misconduct in state capitals in Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Rhode Island, among others, though the situation in California, the nation’s most populous state, appears particularly dire.
That reflects what even today is the male dominance in positions of power in government — 80 percent of the lawmakers in California are men — and the statehouses filled with lobbyists seeking influence and younger legislative aides and interns launching their careers.
In the wake of the complaints in Sacramento, legislative leaders announced a major review of the disciplinary system, which relies on separate rules committees in the Senate and Assembly to investigate complaints and, if enough evidence is found, to determine whether anybody should be punished. There are pages and pages of rules on how the system is supposed to work.
But many women do not trust it. They do not use it. And when they do file official complaints, their attempts to seek redress can sometimes backfire and result in them being fired or shunned.
“I would never depend on any rules committee to properly conduct an independent investigation, or to remedy sexual harassment,” said Micha Liberty, a California lawyer who handles sexual harassment cases. “The only way to obtain justice in these settings is to actually seek justice in the judicial branch.”
Richard D. Roth, a Democratic state senator and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Legislative Ethics, said he tried to push the Senate to create an independent outside ombudsman position, but ultimately failed.
“It is not a very victim-friendly process,” he said. “It’s a difficult complaint process to navigate, and certainly not a process that encourages people to come forward.”
Christine Pelosi, chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, said Sacramento needed an independent outside body to investigate claims and to make sure that the names of offenders, if found guilty, were made public.
The Senate has an ombudsman who reports to the ethics committee. The Assembly has no one in that role.
“Both of them have secret proceedings,” Ms. Pelosi said of the Senate and Assembly. “Both are judged by their peers. And in both cases, we the public have no idea what is going on.”
Lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative aides say the relatively few official complaints indicate how little faith there is in the system.
The Assembly Rules Committee has investigated one harassment case this year, compared with three in 2016, two in 2015, one each in 2014 and 2013, and none in 2012, said Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee.
Kathryn Dresslar, who was the chief of staff to the Senate president from 2008 to 2014, said three sexual harassment complaints were recorded in the Senate during her time there. The Senate said it did not have up-to-date figures on complaints, officials said.
“The fact that so many women signed the letter tells me that women don’t feel comfortable coming forward to make these complaints to the authorities as they are trained to do in sexual harassment training,” Ms. Dresslar said.
And many harassment cases disappear into the court system, where the outcomes are often sealed as women sign nondisclosure agreements. Still, at least $850,000 has been paid out in court settlements involving harassment that has come to light in the past 20 years, according to newspaper reports.
In interviews, women said that they saw no benefit in taking their grievances to authorities.
“Retaliation can come in the form of intimidation, public trashing or being blacklisted,” said Naveen Habib, 28, who has worked in government and lobbying here since graduating college. “Your career is effectively over because you snitched.”
Shawnda Westly, a consultant and former senior strategist for the California Democratic Party, said retribution was the first thing she thought of when she heard Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, chairwoman of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, talking publicly about being groped by legislators and lobbyists.
“Everybody needs to check Cristina Garcia’s fund-raising for the next six months,” she said. “How much is this going to hurt her ability to raise money? Because it is.”
The Legislature effectively acknowledged the problems after the letter was released. The Senate appointed an outside lawyer to examine its procedures. The Assembly announced it would hold public hearings on its sexual harassment policies.
“Given the number of women coming forward, we have to look at our policies and training,” said Laura Friedman, the chairwoman of the Assembly committee that will hold the hearings.
On Friday, The Los Angeles Times reported that Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Democrat, was disciplined in 2009 when he was chief of staff to another assembly member, after a staff member accused him of groping her. He was found to have engaged in inappropriate behavior after an investigation by independent lawyers hired by the Rules Committee, and was barred from having any communication with the staff member.
Mr. Bocanegra issued an apology and vowed to improve the system to encourage other victims to come forward.
“I will work closely with my colleagues to ensure all processes involving sexual harassment are handled properly and fairly and that no woman or man who has been harassed is retaliated against by members or staff,” Mr. Bocanegra said in a statement. “Again, I’m deeply regretful about putting someone in this position and I want to apologize most sincerely.”
By contrast, the Finnigan case was an example of the risks women say they face in trying to go through official channels. Mr. Fox hung up on a reporter who called him seeking comment, but he previously denied in a deposition that he had ever exposed himself to her. Lia Lopez, deputy chief administrative officer for the Rules Committee, declined to answer questions, citing confidentiality.
Pamela Lopez, 35, a lobbyist who said she was followed into the bathroom by a lawmaker who undid his pants and asked her to touch his genitals, said she never considered reporting the episode.
“I was concerned that I would be told, ‘Hey what happened to you is really not that big a deal but how dare you hurt a man’s career,’ ” Ms. Lopez said. “And so much of working in politics is relationship based. I need to be able to get meetings with lawmakers and staff. I need to be able to get people to take my phone calls.”
This is also a city where the lines between work and play are often blurred. For three or four days a week during session, the same group of lawmakers, lobbyists, aides and hangers-on often float from legislative hearings to receptions or fund-raisers — often with an open bar — at elegant spots like Ella. Nights often end at Simon’s Bar and Café, a dive over on 15th Street, where the owner, Simon Chan, said that legislators who are “overserved” regularly summon a Capitol police officer to drive them home.
In the days since the letter was released, dozens of women have come forward to provide detailed and often unsettling encounters with men here. Caity Maple, 24, said that when she was an intern three years ago, a prominent male member of the Assembly — who had for weeks offered her a job on his staff in exchange for a promise to “spend time with him” — ran into her at a downtown pub. Unsteady and intoxicated, the lawmaker began touching her and remarking on her legs, she said.
“I looked at him and I told him, ‘Don’t ever talk to me again,’” Ms. Maple said. “He said, ‘Good luck finding a job in this town again.’”
Ms. Maple, who never reported the episode, said women in Sacramento trade lists of the men to be avoided.
“We all talk to each other,” she said. “We all know who the creepers are.”
For many women, self-protection may be the only recourse. Lisa Kaplan, 42, said she complained to the Rules Committee after she said a superior, whom she declined to name, responded to a request for a raise by asking her why she would not consider dating him, and then “began to intimidate, harass, bully me.” The episode occurred more than 10 years ago, when she worked for an assemblyman.
She said his behavior grew worse after she met with an official at the Rules Committee. She said she was eventually told there was not much she could do about the complaint unless she appealed further, although she could not recall the exact words. After she left to work for a lobbying firm, Ms. Kaplan said, she felt shunned by her former boss’s friends in the Capitol.
“I was targeted by the male powers that be,” she said. “Because how dare I file a complaint and stand up for myself?”