California lawmaker apologizes for 2009 harassment incident
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra put his hands in a woman’s blouse at an after-work gathering when both were legislative staffers in 2009, an incident that only became public Friday and immediately prompted an apology from the Los Angeles-area Democrat.
Bocanegra is the first sitting legislator publicly named since a letter circulated last week saying there was a “pervasive culture” of sexual harassment at the Capitol and encouraged women to share their stories.
Following an investigation Bocanegra was told not to talk to the woman again but wasn’t otherwise punished, according to a 2009 letter published by the Los Angeles Times detailing the complaint and the probe.
“I’m deeply regretful about putting someone in this position and I want to apologize most sincerely,” Bocanegra said in a statement. He was elected to the Legislature in 2012, lost his seat in 2014 and won again in 2016.
Leaders of the Legislative Women’s Caucus strongly condemned his behavior Friday and called it an example of Senate and Assembly leaders’ failure to enforce the bodies’ zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies.
“The indefensible actions of some male members of the Legislature show a lack of accountability and remorse,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia and Sen. Connie Levya said in the joint statement. “The absence of repercussions is yet another example of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment within California politics.”
In the 2009 incident, Elise Flynn Gyore, then a Senate staff member, told the Times Bocanegra approached her outside the bathroom during an after-work event at a Sacramento nightclub and put his hands into her blouse. Bocanegra was the chief of staff for then-Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes. The two did not know each other, Gyore said.
“I jumped out of my skin,” Gyore said. It felt like Bocanegra was following her around the event and she eventually left the party with a friend out of fear he might follow her to her car, she said.
Gyore confirmed Bocanegra’s identity and reported him the next day to a Senate sergeant, touching off an investigation that included interviews with Gyore, Bocanegra and 13 other unidentified people, according to the letter.
“The findings from the investigation show it is more likely than not that Mr. Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectations for professionalism,” said the June 2009 letter.
In addition to Bocanegra, the Women’s Caucus condemned “alleged actions” by Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia. The Sacramento Police Department said Friday it is investigating allegations against Mathis brought by a third party but provided no details.
No women have publicly accused Mathis of sexual harassment or assault.
Jennifer Jacobs, a Mathis spokeswoman, said allegations against Mathis “will be proven false” and that he will cooperate with any investigation.
“Devon’s all right with a bad headline here or there if it means women feel like they’re going to be taken seriously when they do have complaints,” Jacobs said.
The Assembly shields its investigations from public disclosure laws, meaning allegations and discipline against lawmakers and legislative staff member’s remain secret unless people involved choose to share it. About 150 women — lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members — signed the letter released last week but none publicly identified men when they did so.
The Assembly has investigated 11 sexual harassment and gender bias complaints in the past five years, chief administrative officer Debra Gravert said. The Senate has not publicly disclosed how many investigations it has conducted.
After the investigation into Bocanegra, he was told not to communicate with Gyore and to contact others in her office with any official business, the letter said. Gyore had requested Bocanegra be banned from attending work-related social events involving alcohol, a request the Assembly said it could not comply with, according to the letter.
“While the Assembly Rules Committee has expectations that staff conduct themselves professionally outside of the workplace and is able to take corrective action if these expectations are not met, we are not able to direct how or where employees spend their time before or after normal business hours,” the letter said.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, said he appreciated Gyore’s “bravery” and that her story illustrates why the Capitol’s culture must change. He did not specifically mention Bocanegra.
“How incidents of harassment were handled in the past can inform our current efforts to improve the system and to build a future where these injustices are prevented before they happen and no employee has to fear harassment or abuse,” he said.