#MeToo movement lawmaker investigated for sexual misconduct
SAN FRANCISCO — California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia — whose high-profile advocacy of the #MeToo movement earned her national media notice — is herself the subject of a state legislative investigation in the wake of a report that she sexually harassed and groped a former legislative staffer.
Daniel Fierro of Cerritos told POLITICO that in 2014, as a 25-year-old staffer to Assemblyman Ian Calderon, he was groped by Garcia, a powerful Democratic lawmaker who chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus and the Natural Resources Committee.
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He said she cornered him alone after the annual Assembly softball game in Sacramento as he attempted to clean up the dugout. Fierro, who said Garcia appeared inebriated, said she began stroking his back, then squeezed his buttocks and attempted to touch his crotch before he extricated himself and quickly left.
Fierro said he never reported the incident, which occurred years before the current #MeToo movement and new whistleblower legislation to protect legislative staffers. But after he mentioned the issue last January to Calderon, his former boss, the matter was then referred to the Assembly Rules Committee, which launched an investigation.
Fierro is not the only one claiming improper advances by Garcia. A prominent Sacramento lobbyist says she also accosted him in May 2017, when she cornered him, made a graphic sexual proposal, and tried to grab his crotch at a political fundraiser. He spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
The lobbyist, who represents a major industry association, said that Garcia appeared to have been drinking heavily at a fundraiser hosted by Governor Jerry Brown for Assemblyman Josh Newman at the de Veres bar in Sacramento. He said he was heading out the door in part to avoid the assemblywoman — who had been increasingly “flirtatious” and had called him on a few occasions before for late night drinks which he repeatedly declined.
She spotted him and said,“Where are you going?” the lobbyist said.
“She came back and was whispering real close and I could smell the booze and see she was pretty far gone,’’ he said. “She looked at me for a second and said, “I’ve set a goal for myself to fuck you.”
At that point, Garcia “stepped in front of me and reaches out and is grabbing for my crotch,’’ he said. That was “the line in the sand,” according to the lobbyist, and he stopped her. “I was four inches from her, eyeball to eyeball — and I said, ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’”
The accusations against Garcia come at the close of months of high-profile activism on the issue of sexual harassment by the assemblywoman, who became one of Sacramento’s leading voices on #MeToo issue.
Garcia was one of hundreds of Sacramento women who signed a letter with the hashtag #WeSaidEnough protesting harassment, and told the New York Times that she had been the repeated victim of sexual harassment by men in the Capitol in the course of her legislative work.
“Multiple people have grabbed my butt and grabbed my breasts,” she told the Times. “We’re talking about senior lobbyists and lawmakers.”
On December 15, when Time magazine announced that “Silence Breakers” who spoke out against sexual harassment were its Persons of the Year, Garcia’s face was prominently included in the art accompanying the cover story.
“I didn’t know I was part of the story,’’ the assemblywoman tweeted, but said it was an “awkwardly humbling experience. I’m proud of this work, and proud of the company I’m in.” She added the hashtags #MeToo and #WeSaidEnough.
Jessica Levinson, a professor of law and political ethics at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles — and the current president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission — said that, if proven true, the accusations against Garcia threaten to seriously damage the nationwide movement that has been credited with bringing the issue of sexual harassment into the open.
“Hypocrisy knows no bounds and no partisanship, it crosses all party affiliations,’’ she said. “To the extent that these are substantiated claims, there’s a picture of Cristina Garcia as a hypocrite in the dictionary.”
The stories underscore how “sexual harassment is not OK, period — regardless of whether it’s by a man, or a woman. And frankly, this threatens to set the movement back — because when you have one of the faces of this movement facing these allegations, that’s a real problem.”
“People will say, well, everybody on both sides does bad things — but it goes to who can we really believe anymore?” Levinson said.
Fierro provided POLITICO with copies of his correspondence with Elizabeth H. Foster, the human resources coordinator for the committee regarding the case. He said he sat for a lengthy interview last Friday with attorney Vida Thomas of Weintraub Tobin, the law firm hired by the Assembly Rules Committee to investigate sexual harassment complaints.
“Every complaint about sexual harassment should be taken seriously and I will participate fully in any investigation that takes place,”said Garcia in a statement Thursday. “The details of these claims have never been brought to my attention until today. I can confirm that I did attend the 2014 legislative softball game with a number of members and my staff. I can also say I have zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values.”
Teala Schaff, spokeswoman for Garcia’s office, said the assemblywoman was aware of the report to the Assembly Rules committee, but was not made aware of the details of the complaint.
In coming forward, Fierro said he felt the same doubts that women have expressed in similar situations. “I thought, ‘What did I do?’” to bring on the sexual aggression, he said.
Unlike many women, he said he never felt physically threatened, and always felt supported by Calderon, his boss. But he said he feared repercussions from an influential assemblywoman who could affect his fledgling communication business. “Who wants to be that guy that Cristina Garcia is going after?” he said.
Fierro said he would not be surprised if Garcia does not even remember the groping incident, saying she was so intoxicated that when he saw her later that night at another event, “she had to have other people hold her up.”
Two Assembly staffers who were Sacramento colleagues with Fierro, who is now president of his own Southern California firm, Presidio Strategic Communications, confirmed to POLITICO that he related the incident to them immediately after the episode.
Lerna Shirinian, the communications director for Calderon, said “I remember it very clearly, he told me as soon as it happened..he was in shock, I was in shock — but the culture was very different back then,’’ Shirinian said, noting the admission was in confidence and she had to respect her friend’s decision not to report it.
Another former legislative staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said Garcia was known to speak about sexual issues to young staffers in the office, sometimes in graphic detail, and occasionally to be a hard drinker in Sacramento.
He confirmed hearing Fierro’s account, saying he remembered the incident because Garcia was partying and drinking more heavily at the legislative softball game in celebration of her birthday. Records show the Assembly Legislative Softball game was August 20, 2014; Garcia’s birthday is August 22.
The Sacramento lobbyist never formally reported the matter out of concern for his clients.
But his account of the groping incident was corroborated by another high profile political operative in Sacramento, who declined to be named for publication. She said at the time the lobbyist was both angered and “humiliated” by the encounter, and disturbed that his sexual rejection of Garcia could have implications for his industry.
Both she — and the lobbyist — believe it may already have.
The lobbyist said he has seen Garcia in an intoxicated state on several occasions around Sacramento, sometimes appearing to need help; he cited an evening late in 2016 when he said she emerged from an Old Town Sacramento bar with staffers, and urged him to come with them on “a pub crawl.”
He said he’s been particularly been bothered by the incident in the wake of Garcia’s national fame as a feminist leader on the #MeToo movement.
“I watched her jumping into this, and she’s Joan of Arc,’’ he said. “She’s pushing against people who have done a lot of things — some worse than her, and some not.”
Fierro also pointed to the rise of the #MeToo movement as the impetus for finally admitting the incident to Calderon. He said he was assured by Assembly Rules that his complaint would be confidential — but within 48 hours of it reaching the committee, “I was getting calls” from outside sources who heard about it. “There was clearly a a leak.’’
Soon, he said, “people were starting to ask me about it….I was getting nervous.”
After relating his experiences to the Assembly’s hired attorney last week, Fierro said he was also concerned that a significant part of the questioning appeared to be focused on about “How did it get out? Who did you tell?”
Still, he said, “I honestly think the Assembly tries. I spent a long time in the institution, and I love it, and I’m usually a cheerleader for it.”
The California legislature has moved to expedite sexual harassment reports against lawmakers in the wake of activism by the #WeSaidEnough organization last year, when women reported their complaints were being swept under the rug, delayed for months or dismissed.
Under a new process instituted this year, the Assembly Rules Committee refers complaints deemed valid to an independent law firm — legislators say they believe that will speed the process of assisting victims.
Ten allegations of sexual harassment are pending before the Assembly, according to Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office.
“There is no set time frame for findings to be issued” in the Garcia case, said a spokesman for Rendon.
But Fierro notes that even with additional protections mandated by the passage of the landmark whistleblower legislation last week, he is not protected. Since he no longer works for the legislature, Fierro won’t receive legal counsel or any help in his effort to report the assemblywoman’s conduct. Nor will he have any protection from retribution in the insular world of California politics, where former staffers, strategists, lawmakers and lobbyists often cross paths.
“If you are not an employee, there is absolutely zero protection — and Sacramento is a revolving door,’’ he said. “People don’t stick around long, and in that situation, once you’re outside — it’s discouraging.”
He says his case underscores how legislators must face the reality that sexual harassment is occurring on both sides of the aisle — and by both sexes.
“I have female co-workers who have gone through this — and it absolutely needs to be talked about,’’ he said. “The problem is when Cristina is the one, it’s for everyone to roll their eyes..and it takes away from the issue…and the credibility.”
February 8, 2018 at 02:17PM