Women’s groups and former staffers want public scrutiny of state capitol misconduct investigations

A coalition of former California legislative workers and women’s advocates on Thursday called for changes and a public review of the state Capitol’s Workplace Conduct Unit, an independent investigative group created in following the #MeToo movement to address complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation in offices of the legislature.

At a press conference on Capitol Hill, several women said they were disappointed with the investigative unit’s handling of allegations of misconduct by state house supervisors and co-workers in recent years. . They said the process was too long and often opaque, and that their concerns were not addressed in a way that would bring about meaningful change or hold the alleged perpetrators accountable.

The group called on the Legislative Assembly to commit to holding a public hearing before the end of the session in August, to determine what has worked and what hasn’t so far with unity. They also unveiled a pledge for elected officials and candidates to sign “to support the safety of California staff and volunteers in politics and government.

“Survivors and the public deserve an open forum for people to share with the public and the legislature the pain and trauma caused by WCU, so that we can all move forward together towards a more equitable future,” said Ruth Ferguson, co-founder. from the group Stop Sexual Harassment in Politics. Ferguson recently wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle alleging misconduct in his former legislative office and accusing the Workplace Conduct Unit of failing to properly handle his complaint.

Julia Johnson, executive director of the Workplace Conduct Unit, said in a statement that the investigation group took the comments seriously and agreed that “speed of investigations is important”. Johnson pointed to the hiring of additional investigators and other staff to expedite the process, and said the WCU is reviewing the allegations “without guidance on how to conduct such investigations by either chamber of the California legislature”.

Supporters and members of the Stop Sexual Harassment in Politics group at the California Capitol on Thursday.

(Hannah Wiley/Los Angeles Times)

“I encourage participants in our process who have concerns to let us know so that we can continue to improve our processes,” she said.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) did not immediately respond to the request for a public hearing.

But in a May 13 letter to legislative staff and members, Atkins and Rendon said they would have discussions with the Legislative Women’s Caucus “to develop an assessment of WCU and gather recommendations for improvement from members and staff”. They said the goal was to “have these improvements in place by the end of this legislative session.”

“We know our work is not done,” the two leaders wrote. “This level of meaningful work requires continued focus and dedication, and we remain committed to this effort.”

The Workplace Conduct Unit was created in early 2019 after the #MeToo movement swept through the state Capitol and brought public attention to what accusers described as condoning behavior endemic inappropriateness in state politics. A coalition of more than 140 women first signed an October 2017 letter calling for culture changes in the statehouse, which snowballed into a broader public campaign for greater accountability and new policies to crack down on wrongdoing.

Three lawmakers who were publicly accused of misconduct resigned less than a year after the letter was written, and a fourth left the Legislative Assembly for health reasons, although he was the subject of a harassment investigation. Several other lawmakers were reprimanded.

The Workplace Conduct Unit is meant to be separate from the Legislature and pledges to “promptly, independently and objectively investigate allegations”. The unit received 349 complaints between February 2019 and 2022, according to a March memo Atkins and Rendon sent to staff and members, and resolved 95% of complaints.

Alicia Lewis, co-founder of We Said Enough, a group that helped bring the #MeToo movement to Capitol Hill, said Thursday it’s time for the Legislature to reflect on what has and hasn’t worked. worked with the inquiry process.

“Where is the revaluation? Lewis said. “Being able to have that call to action to say let’s look back, let’s talk about it, get that feedback, fill those gaps and make the necessary changes is going to be crucial if we’re going to have a culture shift.”

Los Angeles Times

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