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Investigation Clears CA Lawmaker Of Groping Male Staffer But Says She Used Vulgar Language

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio
California Assemblywoman and Legislative Women's Caucus chair Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) speaks at an International Women's Day and "Day Without A Woman" rally outside the California state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, the outspoken leader of the Me Too movement at the state Capitol who herself has faced accusations of sexual harassment, says the most severe allegations have been found to be unsubstantiated.

However, the Assembly investigation conducted by an outside law firm did substantiate that she used vulgar language around staff, used staff for personal matters, and spoke disparagingly about other Assembly members. The vulgar language is a violation of the Assembly’s sexual harassment and violence prevention policy.

“I would like to sincerely apologize to my colleagues in the Legislature, my staff and most importantly to the residents of the 58th Assembly District for instances where my use of language was less than professional,” Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) said in a statement in which she vowed “to make amends for my past.”

“I know that I can only effectively serve my constituents if staff and my colleagues feel comfortable and respected on the job,” her statement continued. “That is the climate I pledge to build and sustain.”

The Assembly sent letters to Garcia and to the parties that submitted the complaints against her, which begins a 10-day period during which all sides have the opportunity to appeal.

Daniel Fierro, the former legislative staffer who alleged that an inebriated Garcia cornered and groped him in 2014 after the annual legislative softball game, told Capital Public Radio Thursday that he has “serious concerns” about how the investigation was conducted and is considering an appeal.

Fierro worked in the district office of Asm. Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) at the time and is now a Los Angeles County-based Democratic political consultant. Calderon reported the incident to the Assembly Rules Committee in early January of this year after Fierro told him about it.

Fierro says he gave the investigator the names of witnesses, but “I know for a fact one of them was never contacted.”

Garcia voluntarily took an unpaid leave of absence in February, one day after the first media reports about Fierro’s complaint.

Days later, San Diego employment law attorney Dan Gilleon, who said he was representing four former Garcia staffers, delivered an anonymous letter to the Assembly that contained additional allegations against her.

One of Gilleon’s four clients, David Kernick, filed a formal complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Kernick alleged that, in June 2014, his employment was terminated shortly after he complained that Garcia asked him to join her in a game of “spin the bottle” in her hotel room.

That allegation was also found to be unsubstantiated.

But a letter from the Assembly detailing the findings, which substantiated the three other allegations, said it “has taken appropriate remedial measures with respect to Assemblymember Garcia designed to prevent this or similar behavior in the future.”

In a statement, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he’s removing Garcia from all committee memberships, and is requiring her to take sensitivity training and individual sexual harassment training.

“Despite the decision that the most egregious allegations could not be substantiated, it is clear that Assemblymember Garcia has engaged in a pattern of behavior that must be addressed,” the speaker wrote.

Gilleon disputed the initial characterization from Garcia’s office that she was “exonerated” of the sexual harassment allegations.

“The Assembly admitted vulgar language was used and it was ‘pervasive,’ which tracks the jury instructions defining harassment,” he wrote in an email on Thursday.

Garcia’s office later issued a clarification acknowledging that she had violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment and violence prevention policy.

The Assembly said it tried to interview Gilleon’s clients but he declined to make them available.

Gilleon, however, said he wanted his clients to be interviewed but the Assembly would have kept the responses private under attorney-client privilege. He instead proposed having another attorney join the interview on his clients’ behalf, but the Assembly would not agree to those terms.

“They want the attorney client privilege to be in place so they can determine what gets provided to the public and what remains hidden,” Gilleon emailed.

Garcia denied the allegations in a March interview with The California Report. But in that same interview, she acknowledged using the word “homo,” which drew criticism from LGBTQ groups.

Then, in April, Politico reported that former Assembly Speaker John Pérez had to “strongly admonish” Garcia in 2014 for making anti-Asian comments.

Until the allegations against her first emerged, Garcia had been one of the most outspoken state lawmakers against sexual misconduct in California politics.

When the Me Too movement sparked nearly 150 women in and around the Capitol to sign a letter declaring “We Said Enough” last fall, she was one of a handful of lawmakers who signed their names to that list.

When she signed the letter, she told Capital Public Radio that she was groped just two weeks after being sworn into the Assembly. She said she was “told by a senior member not to say anything.”

"When these people have so much power and you’re so dependent on it, you feel like it’s the cost of doing business here and that’s what I have to put up with," Garcia said at the time.

She was also one of the women whose pictures were included in the print edition of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year issue, entitled “The Silence Breakers,” which focused on leaders of the Me Too movement.

Garcia rose to prominence as an outsider unafraid to speak her mind, both as a community activist before her election in 2012 and during her five-plus years in the Assembly.

She was a vocal critic against the corruption scandal in the Los Angeles County city of Bell, starting a group called “BASTA” — the Spanish word meaning “enough” and an acronym for Bell Association to Stop The Abuse — that organized the recall elections of the mayor and several city council members.

“You’re either with us or against us,” she told the Bell City Council at a meeting in the summer of 2010, “and if you’ve been earning $100,000 a year, you’re against us.”

Garcia’s activism helped propel her to the Assembly in 2012. She defeated former Asm. Tom Calderon in the June primary, despite being vastly outspent. Calderon would later be indicted for bribery and plead guilty to money laundering.

She continued to speak out as a state lawmaker.

She chaired the Legislature's powerful Women’s Caucus, authored a law that broadened the definition of rape, and unsuccessfully tried to repeal the state’s sales tax on feminine health products such as tampons.

And in what may have helped provoke the effort to publicize the sexual harassment allegations against her, Garcia was a strong environmental justice advocate. She argued that efforts to fight climate change by reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions often left out low-income communities like hers, which is at the heart of a heavily trafficked Los Angeles County transportation corridor and has some of the state’s dirtiest air.

She authored a key piece of last year’s deal to extend California’s cap-and-trade program that sought to address the air quality in disadvantaged communities.

Along the way, she earned the opposition of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a powerful labor group that

The Trades group is now running an independent expenditure campaign against her re-election bid this year, highlighting the accusations of misconduct.

A consultant for that campaign, veteran Democratic operative Erin Lehane, has toldCapital Public Radio that she hired a private detective and a researcher last fall to investigate Garcia. In April, she reported a $23,000 in-kind contribution to the Building Trades expenditure against Garcia.

“I became personally concerned because I had been told of conduct of hers that I believed was hypocritical to that position as a leader in the Me Too movement — and, I felt, threatened the entire Me Too movement, the integrity of it, because of her lack of authenticity on the issue,” Lehane said.

When the Trades opened the independent expenditure campaign last month, they drew an unusually harsh warning from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt by ‘Big Oil’ and polluters to intimidate me and my members. It is an afront [sic] to my speakership,” Rendon said in a mid-April statement released by the Assembly Democrats’ campaign consultant, Bill Wong. “We will vigorously defend the members of our caucus from any ill-advised political attack.”

Copyright 2018 Capital Public Radio