National News

California whistle-blower law is revived

Posted January 31, 2018 8:04 p.m. EST

SACRAMENTO -- In each of the past four years, a Senate committee inexplicably killed a bill to provide whistle-blower protections to legislative employees. Now, the revived bill is one of the most popular in the Legislature, with more than half the lawmakers signing on as co-authors as it heads to the full Senate for a critical vote Thursday.

That's the power of the #MeToo movement, said bill author Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. As the Legislature looks at how it can protect its employees from sexual harassment and abuse, many women have pointed to Melendez's long-stalled bills to provide anti-retaliation protections as the answer.

AB403 was released from legislative limbo this month after the Senate Appropriations Committee that held it up each year forwarded it to the Senate floor for a vote Thursday. The bill says, ``Legislative employees should be free to report legal and ethical violations without fear of retribution.'' The protections in the bill would also cover volunteers, interns, fellows and those applying for a job in the Legislature.

Under the legislation, anyone who intentionally retaliates against a whistle-blower in the Legislature could be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to a year and could be sued by the employee in civil court. The protections are similar to what lawmakers passed for all other state employees -- including judicial and executive branch staffers -- under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.

Melendez introduced whistle-blower bills in 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014. All four bills unanimously passed in the Assembly. When they reached the Senate, however, they stalled without a vote -- or an explanation -- in the Appropriations Committee. That Senate committee handles bills that cost money, with the whistle-blower bill sent there because of added ``cost pressures'' from investigations if more people report bad behavior, according to the bill analysis.

Like most bills sent to the appropriations committee, the bill was placed on what's called a suspense file, where the decision on whether it passes or fails is decided behind closed doors without a public vote. The decision is primarily left up to the committee chair Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County), and Senate President Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.

Lara, who has previously declined to comment on why he sat on the bill, said in a statement Wednesday that he thought the Senate's own protections and zero-tolerance policies were enough to protect employees.

``But clearly we need to do more,'' Lara said, adding that he will vote in favor of the bill Thursday.

De Leon, who's running against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, intitially did not say why the bills were stalled. But in recent months as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, he said that whistle-blower protections are ``necessary to strengthen safeguards'' for legislative employees. He moved the bill out of the appropriations committee this month in order to prompt Thursday's vote by the Senate. De Leon's staff said he will support AB403.

Melendez even beefed up the bill by adding an urgency clause so that it would take effect immediately.

``When you think about how long women have waited for some kind of protections, this is long past due,'' Melendez said. ``We don't want women to have to wait any longer.''

Melendez said without the whistle-blower protections that all other state employees have, misdeeds in the statehouse have been allowed to fester. In October, amid a national outcry deemed the #MeToo movement, women in and around the Capitol began to come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse.

Lobbyist Adama Iwu, who penned a letter signed by nearly 140 women in politics in October, said part of the issue that drove women to talk in a whisper network instead of filing reports was a feeling that the Legislature did not protect those who came forward, particularly at-will legislative employees that could be fired for any reason.

Whistle-blower protections, she said, are ``critically important.'' So is the urgency clause added to the bill, she said.

With the urgency clause, the bill would take effect immediately if approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, whereas most bills become law Jan. 1. If the bill passes the Senate on Thursday as expected, it could be voted on in the Assembly as early as Monday. Melendez said the plan would be to immediately send it to Brown.

``We have various investigations going on and no one wants to talk unless there are protections in place,'' Iwu said. ``We've waited long enough.''

But, the urgency provision also increases the number of votes needed for it to pass.

AB403 will need two-thirds of the Senate and Assembly to approve it, a hurdle that would have seem daunting prior to the attention on sexual harassment in the Capitol.

Melendez said she's optimistic given the reckonning around sexual harassment and abuse across the country.

In the Capitol, two lawmakers -- Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles County and Matt Dababneh, Los Angeles County resigned late last year following allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. A third lawmaker, Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Los Angeles County, was suspended while an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him is completed. Mendoza, a former roommate of de Leon's, has denied any wrongdoing.

De Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles County, are working together through a joint committee on new sexual harassment and investigation policies that protect staffers and others who work in the building. That committee held its first hearing Jan. 24, promising a comprehensive review of how the Legislature can improve, but saying such change will not come overnight.

Melendez said while those policies are being crafted, her bill will move the Capitol forward in a significant way.

``This is a good starting point,'' Melendez said. ``At the very least you need to give the protections in order for people to talk. That will help craft how changes are made.''