The state Senate Rules Committee move to address staff complaints against sitting lawmakers through an independent legal firm may be a positive step but also sadly reactionary given the scope of the sexual harassment problem in the state Legislature. Echoing the sentiment of the open letter recently submitted by 140 women in the Capitol community, the culture of dehumanizing behavior has been prevalent for far too long, perhaps forever, and it is incumbent on men to cease being complicit in support of their female colleagues. Not a lot has changed in over 35 years.
I was still naïve when first exposed to this shameful behavior in 1982. As a recent college graduate serving a Senate Fellowship, the specter of sexual harassment was starkly evident on one occasion in the hallways of the Capitol. I witnessed a woman’s office belongings dumped outside her office for all to see on the day she was fired. As I learned later, the woman was a secretary who had broken off a personal relationship with the legislator she was working for. I have no knowledge if any action was taken but the incident certainly was not exposed to the public. This type of humiliating injustice seemed to be status quo.
The Senate Rules Committee should not shield the public from allegations of inappropriate conduct by anyone in a position of power. Unreported or veiled misconduct, illegal or simply unethical, can result in ruined careers and, by extension, the lives of innocent victims. It can also have a negative impact on our electoral process, as I’m sure it has and could have happened to me.
Before I was elected to the state Assembly in 2002, I served my first two terms as an Orange County supervisor. My opponent in the 1996 Orange County supervisor election was then-sitting state Assemblyman Mickey Conroy. At that time, Conroy was facing a sexual harassment lawsuit by his former assistant in the state Capitol. The Assembly investigation concluded Conroy and his chief of staff were guilty of sexual harassment resulting in a public reprimand and a cost of over $800,000 to taxpayers in Conroy’s legal defense fees.
With the election approaching, Conroy engaged in an elaborate attempt to postpone his legal trial until after voters went to the polls. This information was known to the Rules Committee. Someone leaked the outside law firm’s full investigation report to me and my campaign. I directly attacked Conroy for being found guilty of sexual harassment. I am sure to this day that I won the election because I brought his conduct out into the light. I cringe to think of how many other elections may have been swayed by the cover-up of misbehavior by those who lead the Legislature.
To be certain, the political arena does not stand alone in the insidious presence of sexual harassment. Recent headlines indict power players in Hollywood, higher education and the corridors of corporate America. The culture of victimization must continue to be attacked through the voices of those who have suffered and others who witness or even suspect abuse.
Government officials must be even more vigilant in the pursuit of impropriety. The course of electoral outcomes and most importantly the public trust is at stake. All investigative reports must be released once their findings are concluded and due process is followed and I am calling on the Legislature — both houses — to do so immediately.
Todd Spitzer is Orange County Third District supervisor, a former state assemblyman and a candidate for Orange County District Attorney in 2018.
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