As Capitol is hit by ‘me too’ reports of sexual harassment, pressure mounts on lawmakers to make changes
Nanette Farag was a new staffer in the state Capitol, an eager 25-year-old who aspired to a career in politics. So she quickly obliged when a fellow aide—a man with a lot more seniority—suggested they walk up to his office for a meeting. Once they were alone in an empty stairwell, she recounted, he grabbed her rear end—and then, moving closer, said he just couldn’t stop himself from touching her. She punched him. Then she ran away. What she did not do, ever, was report the incident to the Rules committees that run operations within the Legislature.
“It was just kind of known: You don’t want to be one of those girls who say these things happen,” she explained, recalling what happened 15 years ago. “The girls who make these accusations don’t get ahead. I was young and ambitious and I wanted to be taken seriously.”
Farag, who now works for the Assembly Republican caucus, is among those sharing her story for the first time as scores of women who work in Sacramento call for an end to what they describe as a culture of sexual harassment that permeates the male-dominated state Capitol. They have come forward with stories of being propositioned, groped and assaulted by male colleagues and bosses—including fellow staffers, lobbyists and, yes, legislators. A common theme is the belief that they can’t identify their attackers for fear that doing so will harm their careers.
What unleashed this torrent of revelations was an open letter signed by some 150 female lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants and political staffers in the wake of mounting sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. “As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different. It has not,” the letter said. “Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.”
The letter has ignited an impassioned debate in Sacramento: Do Capitol employees have enough protection to believe that they can report sexual harassment or assault and maintain their careers?
For four years in a row, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has quietly buried a bill—sponsored by a Republican assemblywoman—that would give legislative staff expanded whistleblower protections. Legislative leaders now say they’re reviewing procedures to see if they can be improved; the Senate is expected to announce in the coming days that it is appointing an independent investigator to look into complaints.
Already, both chambers have “zero tolerance” policies that prohibit harassment and retaliation, and require mandatory training for lawmakers and their staff. Administrators proudly point to cases where employees have complained of harassment and kept their jobs while their complaints were investigated.
But the women who are leading the bipartisan anti-harassment campaign known as We Said Enough say current policies are insufficient. They call for taking the responsibility for handling complaints out of the hands of the Legislature itself—instead advocating the creation of an independent entity to receive and investigate reports. They also want whistleblower protections enshrined in law to help ensure that people who file complaints won’t face retribution.
Under the current system, legislative employees are supposed to report problems to either the Assembly or Senate’s Rules Committee—two powerful panels of lawmakers and their staffs that function as the Legislature’s administrative arms. Debra Gravert, the Assembly’s chief administrative officer, says her committee has received seven complaints of harassment in the last four years.
“When allegations of abuse have been reported to the Rules Committee they have been thoroughly investigated and appropriate action has been taken, including termination,” Gravert said.
But like all things under the Capitol dome, the Rules Committees can be politically charged. Each reports to either the Assembly speaker or Senate president pro tem. That creates the potential for conflicts and deters victims from coming forward, said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who is spearheading the campaign to stop harassment.
“It’s a very fox-and-the-hen-house environment,” she said.
When Corbin worked as a legislative staffer several years ago, she said, she saw retaliation against colleagues who reported harassment. After filing complaints, she said, they “were completely incapable of getting a job anywhere in the state Legislature. One actually lost her house when she was unable to pay her bills as a result. Another actually won a settlement, and then was subsequently also blacklisted.”
Women see that happen to others, Corbin said, and decide they’d rather not suffer the consequences of reporting misconduct. Federal research shows that 75 percent of employees nationwide who speak out against mistreatment face some form of retaliation.
Unlike state government employees, people who work for the Legislature are not covered by the California Whistleblower Protection Act. For four years, GOP Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore has carried a bill that would give such protection to legislative employees. And for four years in a row, the bill has passed out of the Assembly with bipartisan support, only to be killed through a secretive process in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It’s ironic to me that the Legislature passes laws that are very specific to what employers can and can’t do, but doesn’t want to impose the same rules on itself,” said Melendez. “What is that?”
Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, declined to comment for this story. His committee’s analysis of Melendez’s bill says it’s unclear how whistleblower protections could work in the Legislature, where employees are not unionized and can be fired without cause.
The Assembly recently agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to a former staffer who accused her boss of harassment and retaliation. The deal has given Melendez new fodder to argue for her bill. The employee told the Sacramento Bee that the lack of whistleblower protections made it difficult for women to report sexual misconduct in the Capitol. Melendez is now asking two prominent Democrats, the chair and vice-chair of the women’s caucus, to become co-authors of the bill, which she plans to re-introduce for the fifth time next year.
No one who’s complaining about the Capitol’s culture believes there’s an easy fix to stop harassment. But Farag, the staffer who never reported being attacked in the stairwell 15 years ago, said a law giving legislative employees whistleblower protection could help.
“It could go a long way toward adding a layer of security and comfort to those individuals who feel like they want to come forward but are afraid to,” she said.