NewsCovering California


California Senate settles claim by harassment whistleblower

A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, California
Posted at 4:23 PM, Feb 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-06 19:23:16-05

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former employee of the California Senate will receive $310,000 in a settlement of a lawsuit that claimed the legislative body and former state Sen. Tony Mendoza retaliated against her for reporting an allegation that Mendoza sexually harassed a co-worker, a newspaper reported Thursday.

The lawsuit brought two years ago by Adriana Ruelas, who was formerly Mendoza’s legislative director, was part of a series of complaints against Mendoza that led the Democrat from Artesia to resign in 2018 although he denied wrongdoing, the Los Angeles Times said.

The settlement was confirmed in a written statement by Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras, who described it as an amicable resolution, the Times said.

“We take all workplace misconduct allegations very seriously, and we have turned a corner in resolving claims such as these,” she wrote.

The lawsuit named the state Senate, Mendoza and two top Senate staff members as defendants. None admitted wrongdoing under the settlement and Mendoza did not respond to requests for comment, the Times said.

The settlement, to be paid with taxpayer dollars from the Senate’s operating budget, represents more costly fallout from sexual harassment allegations that led the Senate and Assembly to commit to changing their policies on treatment of whistleblowers and response to complaints.

As of about a year ago, the Legislature had racked up more than $1.8 million in legal costs from sexual harassment investigations during 2018 and the first month of 2019 when at least nine sitting or former lawmakers faced allegations of misconduct, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The Senate spent $1.26 million and the Assembly $571,000, according to the documents.

Ruelas now works as chief of staff to Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland.

“Without her coming forward and demanding an investigation occur, one may never have been done,” said her attorney, Micha Star Liberty. “I sincerely hope that this resolution can close a very dark chapter where legislative employees were afraid to come forward and report misconduct for fear of retribution.”

Ruelas’ lawsuit claimed she was fired in September 2017 because she informed her supervisor and Senate officials about an alleged pattern of discrimination, harassment and inappropriate behavior by Mendoza toward a recent college graduate working in his office through a fellowship program.

Five months later, the Senate announced that an investigation had substantiated complaints of unwanted advances or sexually suggestive behavior by Mendoza toward the graduate and five other women.

But that investigation did not substantiate Ruelas’ claim that she and two others were fired for reporting the alleged behavior.

Her lawsuit claimed the finding was made without “sufficient basis” and testimony from a key witness.