A California state senator accused of sexual misconduct resigned Thursday just ahead of a possible vote to expel him, delivering a scathing resignation letter that called the investigation a farce and underscored the Legislature's struggle to respond to the #MeToo movement.
Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza of the Los Angeles area said he may still run for the seat this fall, putting his party in an uncomfortable spot. His resignation letter takes aim at the leader of the Senate, a fellow Democrat and his former roommate in Sacramento who was leading the effort to kick him out.
"It is clear that Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon will not rest until he has my head on a platter to convince the MeToo movement of his 'sincerity' in supporting the MeToo cause," Mendoza wrote as he resigned.
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De Leon, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, said the Legislature "won't tolerate abuse of power and a pattern of behavior that violates our harassment standards."
An investigation found that Mendoza likely engaged in unwanted "flirtatious or sexually suggestive" behavior with six women, including four subordinates, a lobbyist and a young woman in a fellowship with another lawmaker. He is the third California lawmaker to resign over sexual misconduct allegations since the #MeToo movement erupted nationally last fall, leading millions of women to share their experiences on social media.
Mendoza has consistently denied wrongdoing and blasted an investigation that he claimed was unfair, illegal and racially motivated. His complaints illustrate the Legislature's struggle to respond to growing demands for a change in a culture perceived as burying complaints and sheltering offenders.
"Removing senators from the process of deciding cases of sexual harassment involving their friends and roommates is imperative," said Sen. Andy Vidak, a Republican who first moved to expel Mendoza in January. "The Mendoza mess has brought to light all of the flaws of our sexual harassment policies but hopefully will lead us to some resolution."
The Legislature still hasn't adopted fair and transparent policies for sexual misconduct four months after dozens of women who work at the Capitol sent a letter calling for a change in culture, said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and co-founder of a group called We Said Enough that formed in the wake of the letter.
"There's a lot of room for interpretation, there's a lot of ambiguity, and it does neither the victims nor the perpetrators any type of justice," she said. "It's unfair for everyone."
Mendoza's resignation was the best solution for the women who accused him of misconduct, but it hasn't delivered justice or due process, Corbin said.
Leaders of the Legislative Women's Caucus said more work remains to be done to ensure clear sexual harassment policies. Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman and Sen. Connie Leyva said the Legislature must ensure harassment claims are dealt with transparently and "no one is beyond reproach."
Mendoza's resignation letter was hand-delivered by an aide moments after the Senate Rules Committee lifted his suspension so he could return to the Capitol and publicly defend himself against expulsion. His photo was quickly removed from a wall showing the sitting lawmakers and replaced with the seal of the Senate.
Mendoza wrote that he wasn't able to see the evidence against him and was ordered to remain silent about the allegations. He said he couldn't get a fair hearing with so many of his fellow Democrats running for higher office and thinking about their own political futures.
Lawyers who conducted the investigation released Tuesday found that Mendoza "more likely than not" engaged in behavior such as offering a 19-year-old intern alcohol in a hotel suite at a Democratic event, suggesting a young woman in a Senate fellowship take a vacation with him and rent a room in his house, and asking several women about their romantic lives.
Mendoza, who is 46 and married, said in his resignation letter that "more likely than not" was a low standard of proof that didn't merit a penalty as high as expulsion. He called the Senate's process "farcical."
Mendoza had taken leave and then days before he was set to return in January, the Senate Rules Committee suspended him because the independent investigation had not yet concluded.
He doesn't plan to drop a lawsuit he filed last week seeking reinstatement. He alleged his suspension was unconstitutional, among other arguments.
Elected officials need to hold themselves to a higher standard, and the Senate doesn't need to hold itself to the same standard as a court of law, said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento.
"So long as there's a process that's transparent and rigorous, that's what we should expect of them."
The Senate could be challenged again soon. An investigation has concluded into Sen. Bob Hertzberg, whom at least three female colleagues say made them uncomfortable with hugs. The findings have not been made public.
Two other Los Angeles-area Democratic representatives, Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, resigned last fall. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia has taken leave after she was accused of groping.