Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio
Two women say California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh sexually harassed them, including one who claims the lawmaker accosted her in a bathroom during a Las Vegas party and masturbated in front of her.
“Matt Dababneh has abused his power to abuse women that work with him and that work for him,” Sacramento lobbyist Pamela Lopez told reporters during a news conference at her lobbying firm near the state Capitol on Monday.
In a letter submitted Monday to Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Ken Cooley — and again at Monday’s news conference — Lopez describes an incident where Dababneh, a Los Angeles County Democrat, followed her into a restroom at a wedding celebration at a Las Vegas hotel in January 2016.
“I went to the restroom and I felt a body, a large body, rush up behind me, use the weight of their body to push me into the restroom, and heard the door slam behind us,” Lopez said.
She continued: “I spun around and realized that I was face to face with Matt Dababneh, and he had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating. I started backing up, and he moved toward me while he was masturbating, and in explicit terms told me to touch his genitals while he was masturbating.”
Lopez says all she could think of in the moment was to make it clear that she was not consenting, to avoid any misunderstanding. “And so I said several times: ‘No, I will not touch you. No, I will not touch you.’”
Dababneh dismissed Lopez’s claims. “I affirmatively deny that this event ever happened — at any time,” the lawmaker said in a statement, released Monday by a Los Angeles area public relations firm. “I am saddened by this lobbyist's effort to create this falsehood and make these inflammatory statements, apparently for her own self-promotion and without regard to the reputation of others. I look forward to clearing my name.”
The lawmaker also denied the allegations to the Los Angeles Times on Monday. “I am utterly shocked and blown away,” he told the paper. “This is a career-ending charge based on no facts.”
Lopez initially declined to name Dababneh when she described the encounter to Capital Public Radio and others earlier this fall. But on Monday, she said she felt compelled to change course, because she believes Dababneh has sexually harassed other women.
“As scary as it is for me to step forward,” she said, “I can’t have it on my conscience that I didn’t do everything that I could do to stop him from hurting other women in the future.”
Dababneh’s lawyer, Patricia L. Glaser, sent a “cease and desist” letter to Lopez on Friday. It warned her that she would be “held fully accountable in damages” if she went through with Monday’s press conference, or made any other public “false and defamatory allegation against Mr. Dababneh.”
A second woman, Jessica Yas Barker, joined Lopez at Monday’s news conference. She said Dababneh sexually harassed her when they worked for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California). Dababneh was Sherman’s district director before being elected to the Assembly in a 2013 special election.
Barker began that job in 2008 at the age of 26 . She says her year-and-a-half there “was a constant reminder from Matt Dababneh that women were subordinate to him — in all ways.”
She says his behavior varied “from comments joking about the glass ceiling that we all have to contend with, to disparaging my clothing, calling me Ellen, telling me not to dress like such a lesbian.
“At events or fundraisers, he would eye up women in the room and talk about his conquests — who he’d slept with, who wanted to sleep with him,” Barker added. “And back at the office, he would open his top desk drawer to reveal a storage of condoms. And once he was certain that I had gotten a view of it, he would make a joke or smirk about it and make comments.”
Dababneh did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Capital Public Radio regarding Barker’s accusations. But when he spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, he accused Barker of political motivations. “I am just shocked at her allegations,” he said. “That’s just not how I behaved.”
Sherman said in a statement that he was “surprised and saddened” to learn of Barker’s allegations. “I personally feel terrible that anyone was made to feel uncomfortable while working in my office. We are redoubling our efforts to make sure that my offices are safe and comfortable places for women and men to work.”
Both women say they told others about their experiences with Dababneh at the time, including family, friends and colleagues, but asked them to remain silent for fear of retaliation.
The women did not call for Dababneh’s resignation; Lopez said it should be left up to his Assembly colleagues.
Lopez said another reason she decided to name Dababneh was because of last week’s Assembly hearing, in which Cooley urged women who have been sexually harassed in the Capitol community to formally report their experiences.
“I am grateful that she came forward with her complaint,” Cooley said in a statement on Monday, adding that, pursuant to Assembly policy, an outside investigator will be hired to look into her allegations.
In a statement, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said Dababneh is “temporarily stepping down” as chairman of the influential Assembly Banking and Finance Committee. “While it is not my place to prejudge any investigation, as I stated when Ms. Lopez first shared her story, if it is found that Assemblymember Dababneh committed this assault I will ask for his immediate resignation and move for his expulsion if he refuses to resign.”
Neither woman has filed a criminal complaint against Dababneh. Lopez said her “primary goal” is to protect herself and other Capitol community women. A lawyer for the two women said that, while Barker’s experiences were illegal, they did not violate a criminal statute.
Dababneh is the third California lawmaker to be named as part of sexual harassment allegations in and around the state Capitol. Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned last week, and state Sen. Tony Mendoza remains in office.