California lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct apologises

Senator Tony Mendoza stands at his desk after announcing that he will take a month-long leave of absence while an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him are completed. (Steve Yeater, AP)
Senator Tony Mendoza stands at his desk after announcing that he will take a month-long leave of absence while an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him are completed. (Steve Yeater, AP)

Sacramento — A California state senator accused of sexual misconduct apologised on Wednesday to anyone who felt uncomfortable because of his behaviour but flatly denied two of the more serious allegations, one involving a 19-year-old female intern, a day before his fellow senators could decide his punishment.

Senator Tony Mendoza offered his first words of conciliation, but otherwise struck a defiant tone in a two-page letter to fellow senators who can censure, suspend or expel him as soon as Thursday.

The Los Angeles-area Democrat is currently suing over the suspension he was given last month, saying it might have been racially motivated.

READ: Suspended California lawmaker sues Senate, alleges racism

Lawyers investigating complaints against Mendoza found that he likely engaged in unwanted "flirtatious or sexually suggestive" behaviour with six women he worked with, including four subordinates.

The summarised findings released late on Tuesday "do not comport with my recollection or perception of the events described", Mendoza wrote, but added: "I am immensely sorry if my words or actions ever made anyone feel uncomfortable."

He specifically denied giving alcohol to an underage intern or inviting a young aide — who worked in his office through a California State University fellowship — to his house under the guise of reviewing resumes.

He did not directly address the investigation's other findings, including that it was "more likely than not" that he suggested another young woman in a Senate fellowship take a vacation with him and rent a room in his house.

He also was accused of asking several women about their dating lives.

ALSO READ: Investigation of senator finds 6 misconduct cases

The California Legislature is one of many statehouses nationwide grappling with a tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations following the #MeToo movement in which millions of women shared their experiences with sexual harassment or assault on social media.

Mendoza, who was chairperson of the Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee until the allegations came to light last year, is the first member of the Senate to face punishment since the sexual misconduct scandal emerged last fall.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who represents a portion of the district Mendoza was elected to serve, took a voluntary leave after she was accused of groping.

Two other Los Angeles-area Assembly Democrats — Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh — resigned their seats.

Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at University of California, San Diego, said the Senate's action against Mendoza sends a message to the state government and political community that "no matter how powerful a committee chair you are, no matter if you're in the majority caucus, the same rules apply to you".

Republicans and Democrats met separately in secret caucus meetings on Wednesday to hear from lawyers and debate punishment for Mendoza.

He plans to defend himself on the Senate floor in proceedings that would be exceedingly rare in the 167 years since California's statehood.

'Weighing on their minds'

No senator has been expelled since 1905, and the Senate has suspended just three members — Leland Yee, Ron Calderon and Roderick Wright — all of them in 2014 when they faced criminal charges.

"You always go back to the most important point: You have to be fair but you have to put the institution first. That is always the touchstone," said Darrell Steinberg, who was the Senate's leader when the chamber dealt with the charges against Yee, Calderon and Wright. He is now Sacramento's mayor.

The California Constitution at the time said lawmakers could lose their pay only if they were expelled or resigned, though an amendment later approved by voters allowed suspension without pay.

Expelling or suspending Mendoza would require a two-thirds vote — 27 of the 40 senators. He can be censured with 21 votes.

"As the members weigh the allegations against him, they have to weigh the appropriate responses," said former Senator Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, who was the Republican leader during the earlier scandal. "I'm sure it's weighing on their minds, as it was last time."

Steinberg and Huff both said lawmakers have to weigh not only the impact on Mendoza and his accusers but on the Senate's reputation.

In his letter to senators, Mendoza warned that it would set a dangerous precedent to expel him — a punishment he said has been previously meted out only for lawmakers who have committed a crime.

"It is important to note that the voters in my district have information, now that the investigation results are public, that they can use to make a decision whether they should re-elect me this year, as early as June 2018," Mendoza wrote to lawmakers.

He repeated his complaint that the Senate has not followed its own process for disciplining lawmakers and that he hasn't been allowed to read the full investigative report, including the evidence against him.

He also pointed out that the investigators found no instances of Mendoza being physically aggressive or sexually crude, and that in some of the incidents he reformed his behaviour after he was told his advances were unwanted.

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