Political News

Cardenas may avoid Democratic backlash despite allegations of sexual misconduct

Posted May 8, 2018 8:33 p.m. EDT

— Rep. Tony Cardenas may hold on to his leadership positions despite facing allegations that he sexually assaulted a then-16-year-old girl in 2007, which is causing some consternation within the ranks.

The California Democrat has a leadership position under House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi created after the 2016 elections, as well as a lower-level position on the whip team under Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

But perhaps most significantly: He chairs the political action committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus known as the Bold PAC, which donates money to Democratic candidates. The leadership of the PAC plans to meet Thursday, and Cardenas' chairmanship could be discussed, but the PAC will continue to raise money at a Washington event on Wednesday, according to a source briefed on the matter.

In a private meeting on Monday, Cardenas made his case to members of the Hispanic caucus, denying the allegations of sexual misconduct and suggesting he was a victim of a political vendetta, according to people who were present. He urged his colleagues to stick behind him.

Members in that meeting decided they would refer any media inquiries about Cardenas to the same statement they issued in December, one day before then-Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota announced he would resign over allegations of misconduct from before he became senator.

"It is the position of the CHC that those responsible for sexual harassment or sexual assault must be held accountable," the statement read. "Every allegation of sexual harassment and misconduct is extremely disturbing and requires a thorough investigation. As elected officials, we must adhere to the strictest and highest standards, regardless of political party, elected office, or seniority."

A spokesman for the chairwoman of the CHC, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, did not comment on whether the congresswoman wants Cardenas out as the chairman of the PAC.

But some Democrats are concerned about the optics of having a member accused of a serious crime atop a PAC that will dole out money to members facing re-election in the fall.

"It looks very bad," one Democratic member groused.

Another member said that Cardenas could avoid being reprimanded because of internal Democratic politics, given that Pelosi or a successor will likely need the support of the CHC to become speaker next year if the Democrats retake the House -- and are wary of sparking a feud with a powerful bloc of votes.

In addition to his position at the PAC, Cardenas was elected in December 2016 to a newly created leadership role for members of Congress who have served five terms or fewer. He also serves as an assistant whip.

Pelosi has said that the matter needs to be fully investigated by the House Ethics Committee. But it remains an open question whether the panel can even investigate the allegations since they occurred in 2007, which exceeds the panel's time frame for probing most matters.

Still, a senior Democratic aide notes there are at least two prior instances in which the committee investigated conduct beyond the panel's time frame -- separate probes involving former Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York and Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois.

The same aide adds that Pelosi does not have the authority to remove Cardenas from his leadership role, since he was elected to the position by the whole caucus. Cardenas would either have to voluntarily step down or be voted out by his colleagues.

On Tuesday, Hoyer gave no indication that he thinks Cardenas should resign from his whip role. Hoyer told reporters that he considers the allegations to be "very serious" and said they warrant investigation. He said Cardenas has approached him to say he's not guilty and is prepared to cooperate fully with any probe.

Asked if Cardenas should step down from his whip position, Hoyer argued Cardenas is on a team with multiple people and that his position is "not a leadership role." According to whip hierarchy, there are several members who rank above Cardenas.

"Look, my position is, we have a process in America where you're innocent until proven guilty," Hoyer said. "If he were in a leadership position ... where he's in a place of speaking for the party, then I would think that would be a different situation. He's not in such a role."

Some Democrats note that the allegations, though grave, differ from those allegations made against other Democratic members over the past year, and leaders are keenly aware of setting precedents. There are not accusations from multiple people, as in the case with Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, who decided not to seek re-election but denied wrongdoing after two unnamed women accused him of sexual misconduct from before he was elected. There are also not accusers willing to go on the record, as was the case with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who resigned last fall after multiple women came forward.

Despite the allegations, some Democrats are siding with Cardenas, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"I think he's being framed," said Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat from California. "He's been a very effective leader of Bold PAC. I've known Tony Cardenas since our days in the state Legislature. I just do not believe these allegations are true."

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat from New York who's a member of the CHC, said Cardenas "has reached out to everybody" in the upper ranks of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"He has pronounced that he is innocent and didn't do anything," Espaillat said. "He should have his day and due process. ... As of now, we're offering the ability to have due process."