California lawmakers approve revamped sexual misconduct policy

A response to the #MeToo movement, the policy uses more independent measures, such as outside experts, to minimize bias which may impede investigations.

Kathleen Ronayne/AP
California Sen. Holly Mitchell (l.) and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D), second from left, listen during a committee hearing on a newly revamped sexual misconduct policy, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 25, 2018.

A panel of California lawmakers approved a new sexual misconduct policy on Monday that will task outside experts with substantiating claims and recommending punishment but still leave lawmakers with the ultimate say on how to discipline their colleagues and employees.

It's expected to take full effect in early 2019 – nearly a year and a half after more than 100 women wrote a blistering letter calling out a pervasive culture of harassment in the Capitol. It prompted fresh scrutiny of the legislature's policies, an increase in complaints, and the resignation of three lawmakers for conduct including groping and unwanted sexual advances.

Existing complaints sparked by the letter will keep going through the current process, which critics have called murky and sometimes biased against victims.

Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist who filed a complaint that led to the resignation of former Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, applauded the new policy but said women will be watching to ensure it is effective.

"The devil is always in the implementation," she told lawmakers.

Aspects of the policy may require formal approval from the full Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, which could take a vote on the matter by August, said legislative counsel Diane Boyer-Vine. The policy was formed after a special legislative committee took hours of testimony from experts in human resources, sexual harassment, and other areas.

California's policy appears to be one of the most sweeping responses among state capitals reacting to the #MeToo movement.

"We are not going to be able to walk out of this meeting today saying that we solved sexual harassment in the Legislature or even that we have the perfect policy in place," said Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman. "This is about culture change. It's not about voting on a set of policies and saying that you're done."

Under the policy, the legislative counsel's office would house a new investigative unit to handle complaints filed from either chamber, including those made by or against lobbyists. Five outside experts would then serve on a panel that would go over investigators' findings, determine whether the actions violate the Legislature's policies and recommend discipline. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Toni Cantil-Sakauye would appoint three and the Senate and Assembly would each appoint one.

Lawmakers would have the final say over punishments, which could range from requiring more training to being fired. Part of the new policy involves more pro-active training and encouraging staff members to report even minor instances of harassment, such as a crude comment around the office.

"The current culture in politics right now is a charged environment so improving communication, civility and respect is a definite challenge," Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella said. "But I know we're up to it."

Under the policy, legislative leaders would continue releasing to reporters the details of substantiated complaints against lawmakers or high-level legislative staffers, a position adopted earlier this year in the face of the high-profile cases against members. The Legislature is not required to release such documents under the Legislative Open Records Act, a disclosure law written by lawmakers themselves that includes broad exemptions.

A bill to enshrine disclosure of misconduct complaints in law did not move forward in the Assembly. Keeping the disclosure rules a matter of policy, not law, would make it easier for future legislatures to change course.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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