Women’s groups, ex-staffers want public review of state Capitol misconduct investigations

A coalition of former California legislature employees 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 formed in the wake of the #MeToo movement to handle complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliatory offices of the legislature.

During a press conference at the Capitol, several women said they were disappointed with the way the investigative unit had handled allegations of misconduct by superiors and colleagues at the Statehouse in recent years. They claimed that the process was too lengthy and often opaque, and that their concerns were not being addressed in a way that could spark meaningful change or hold alleged perpetrators accountable.

The group called on the Legislature to commit to holding a public hearing before the end of the August session to determine what has and hasn’t worked with the unit to date in support of the safety of California employees and volunteers in politics and government.”

“Survivors and the public deserve an open forum where people can share with the public and the legislature the pain and trauma that WCU has caused so we can all move forward together toward a more just future,” said Ruth Ferguson, a co-founder of the group Stop Sexual Harassment in Politics. Ferguson recently wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle alleging wrongdoing at her former Legislative Office and blaming the Workplace Conduct Unit for failing to properly handle her complaint.

Julia Johnson, executive director of the Workplace Conduct Unit, said in a statement that the investigation group takes feedback seriously and agreed that “timeliness of investigations is important”. Noting the hiring of additional investigators and other personnel to expedite the process, Johnson said the WCU is reviewing allegations “without direction to conduct such investigations from either house of the California Legislature.”

Hands holding a sign that reads: "Hear the voices of employees."

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

(Hannah Wiley/Los Angeles Times)

“I encourage participants in our process who have concerns to share them with us so we can continue to improve our processes,” she said.

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

But in a May 13 letter to legislative staffers and members, Atkins and Rendon said they would hold talks with the Legislative Women’s Caucus “to develop an assessment of WCU and gather recommendations for improvements from members and staff.” They said the goal is to “implement these improvements by the end of this legislature.”

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

The Workplace Conduct Unit was established in early 2019 after the #MeToo movement swept through the state Capitol and publicized what prosecutors have said is condoning rampant inappropriate behavior in state politics. A coalition of more than 140 women first signed an October 2017 letter calling for cultural changes at the Statehouse, prompting a larger public campaign for greater accountability and new policies to address misconduct.

Three lawmakers who have faced public allegations of misconduct resigned less than a year after the letter was written, and a fourth left the legislature for ill health despite being the subject of a harassment investigation. Several other lawmakers have been reprimanded.

The Workplace Conduct Unit is said to be separate from the legislature and is committed to “conducting prompt, independent and objective investigations into 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 the complaints.

Alicia Lewis, co-founder of We Said Enough, a group that has helped bring the #MeToo movement to the Capitol, said Thursday that it was time for the Legislature to consider what worked and what worked with the investigative process Not.

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

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-09/former-staffers-womens-groups-call-for-public-review-of-misconduct-investigations-in-california-capitol Women’s groups, ex-staffers want public review of state Capitol misconduct investigations

Alley Einstein

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