SACRAMENTO — 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 U.S. 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 program 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.
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.
But De Leon’s handling of impropriety at the Capitol will likely play a role in his U.S. Senate bid against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of California’s most prominent women in politics and a powerful U.S. 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 misbehavior.”
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 misbehavior.”
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 program, 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.