California Senate Knew Of Sexual Misconduct Claim But Left Young Woman In Lawmaker’s Office

Jan 3, 2018

The California Senate’s human resources office knew about Sen. Tony Mendoza’s alleged sexual misconduct with a female student Fellow in late September. But instead of immediately placing the lawmaker on leave, or finding a safer place for the young woman — as experts say a properly trained, experienced HR professional might have done — Senate leaders left the Fellow in Mendoza’s office for another six weeks.

The Senate says its HR office first became aware of allegations that Mendoza engaged in inappropriate behavior on September 22, the same day it terminated three staffers who worked in the office of the Los Angeles-based senator.

That behavior allegedly includes repeated verbal offers and text invites to the female Fellow to visit him at home, according to a lawyer who represents one of the fired employees and a report in The Sacramento Bee. The lawyer also said that, on one occasion, the lawmaker invited the young woman to his hotel room at Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County.

Eventually, the Fellow began a new job in another senator’s office on November 6. But HR and employment law experts say the Senate botched its response to Mendoza’s victim.

“A truly independent professional who is investigating a complaint of sexual harassment is not going to handle things the way it appears this information was handled,” said Genie Harrison, a Los Angeles-based trial attorney. She has practiced HR and employment law for 25 years, and is helping craft legislation in response to the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations at the state Capitol.

This #MeToo movement has begun to spark reforms by the Senate and Assembly. But current and former Senate employees suggest the changes hardly scratch the surface of what’s needed.

Instead, they paint a picture of a Senate Rules and HR department unable to effectively and expeditiously handle routine issues — let alone navigate the thorny legal field of sexual harassment complaints.

The decision to keep the Fellow in Mendoza’s office for six weeks adds to criticism of the HR experience, qualifications and competency of two of the Senate’s top administrators: Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, the chamber’s executive officer, and his Deputy Secretary for Human Resources, Jeannie Oropeza. Critics say Oropeza’s resumé invites questions over whether she had sufficient hands-on HR experience when she was hired.

“I do not believe that, for the position [Oropeza] holds, she is qualified,” said Samira Collier Watt, the former No. 2 Senate HR official, of her boss.

Watt’s nearly 25 years in that office — and 40 years under the Capitol dome — ended when she retired last week. “It’s been very challenging to work with this kind of leadership for the past two-and-a-half years,” she said.

In addition, six current or former chiefs of staff to senators in both political parties criticized Oropeza in particular for a lack of accessibility and inconsistent responses. Several of them also questioned Alvarez’s oversight of the HR office. “My experience has been disheartening at best,” one said.

Alvarez and Oropeza declined to discuss these allegations or the Mendoza incident. But Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León’s office defends Oropeza as “an eminently qualified and respected” public servant.

“Any public employee, no matter how adept and accomplished, can be a target for second-guessing, but [Oropeza] was the best person for the job when she was hired and has proven more than capable ever since,” De León press secretary Jonathan Underland wrote in an emailed statement. “Any suggestion otherwise is unfair and unfounded.”

Adama Iwu, who co-founded the We Said Enough movement that has sought to change the culture of harassment at the Capitol, argued that the issues inside the HR office demonstrate larger, systemic challenges.

“We’ve always said there are structural issues here,” she said. “It’s not any one person that’s the root of the problem, but it’s the system overall — the system that prioritizes protecting an institution over individuals and victims.”

The six-week lag between the Mendoza complaint and removing the Fellow from the senator’s office was recounted to Capital Public Radio by a source familiar with the situation and was not disputed by the Senate. Mendoza himself did not learn about the complaint until The Sacramento Bee reached out to his office on November 6 — again, six weeks after the original complaint.

Mike Letizia, who runs a Stockton-based HR consulting firm and leads training courses on behalf of the California chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, called the handling of Mendoza’s student Fellow — and the lack of notification to the lawmaker — a failure of “HR 101.”

“They are lacking in foundational HR knowledge,” Letizia said.

The Right Fit For The Job?

The HR director position is a crucial one for nearly every employer — and for employees.

The HR office must investigate complaints of discrimination, hostile work environment and sexual harassment, which — if mishandled — can open up employers to lawsuits.

The October 2014 job listing for the state Senate’s Deputy Secretary for Human Resources position sought applicants with knowledge of rules for hiring, supervising, managing and terminating employees; and affirmative action laws and procedures. In addition, the posting said the Deputy Secretary for Human Resources “investigates employee grievances and harassment claims and makes recommendations to the Secretary of the Senate/Senate Rules Committee for appropriate action.”

The job announcement, which was obtained by Capital Public Radio, asked applicants to submit a resumé and cover letter directly to Alvarez.

Oropeza’s resumé pointed to three decades of government experience, with a wealth of previous work in finance and budgeting. But it’s unclear how much day-to-day experience she had in HR or employment law.

Before the Senate, Oropeza spent almost four years in the California Department of Education, as Deputy Superintendent of Services for the Administration, Finance, Technology and Infrastructure Branch. Her responsibilities included ensuring compliance and reviewing personnel policies, the resumé states. It was the only job on her resumé that referenced anything related to HR.

But Oropeza did not run the Department of Education’s HR office. In fact, the director of that office reported to her, as did the heads of four other divisions, according to an organizational chart provided by the department.

And the job description for that deputy superintendent position, which the department also provided to Capital Public Radio, states that supervising and coordinating the work of the five branches comprises 30 percent of the position’s duties. The HR office, known in the department as the Personnel Services Division, is listed as one of the five branches — suggesting that its oversight made up just 6 percent of Oropeza’s job.

HR and employment law experts say that such a high-level, supervisory post would not have given someone the necessary skills to lead the HR office in the Senate, with its roughly 900 employees.

“Simply because you have worked in a finance or accounting role does not qualify you to step into HR,” Letizia said.

De León’s office, however, suggested it’s ludicrous to say Oropeza didn’t have hands-on HR experience just because she had a higher title at the Department of Education.

In a statement, Underland wrote that Oropeza has “fulfilled the duties of her position with complete integrity and effectiveness” and is “helping the Senate implement some of the strongest anti-harassment protections in the nation and transition to an outside, independent process for investigating reports and complaints of misconduct.”

De León’s office, Alvarez and Oropeza declined to discuss her HR experience, including whether she had ever personally conducted a workplace HR investigation before joining the Senate.

But Letizia and Harrison, the employment law attorney, say overseeing an HR department as a high-level executive is not the same as administering it.

“California is a very complicated state in which to practice HR,” Letizia said. “In the same way that I would not expect someone who was highly skilled at marketing to be able to step into an HR role, I would not expect someone who is highly skilled in finance or accounting to step into an HR role.”

Harrison explained that “typically, a truly effective head of HR is someone who has worked their way up from basically an investigator position, all the way up through to the top of HR,” so that they “know the entire process in and out.”

Hiring otherwise, she said, would be “dangerous” to the Senate.

“If there’s a director of HR who doesn’t actually have real boots-on-the-ground investigative experience, and is new to that kind of job, that really leaves an employer — and the Legislature, I think — open to a lot of attacks and criticism,” she said.

 ‘It’s Clear They’ve Been Colleagues’  

Oropeza was one of five candidates interviewed for the Senate HR post by a three-member search committee, according to a source familiar with the process. Two of the other applicants were veterans of the Senate HR office: Watt and Julie Jensen.

Watt says Jensen, who declined comment for this story, retired after being passed over for the position but returned last year. Watt continued to work in the Senate’s HR office until her retirement last week.

“I can’t beat my head against the wall any longer,” Watt said of working in the office. “And I don’t think that the administration [Senate leadership] wants anything to change.”

Another interviewee, Tosha Cherry, had worked in the city of Sacramento’s HR office for more than eight years, according to her LinkedIn profile. Cherry says she withdrew her application for the Senate HR gig after she was offered an HR leadership post at Dignity Health. Then, in 2016, she applied and was hired for the equivalent of Oropeza’s HR post in the state Assembly, which she currently holds.

But Alvarez bypassed the other applicants to hire Oropeza, who currently earns $176,904 a year.

“Ms. Oropeza comes to us with extensive background in management, expertise in budget and fiscal issues, and a strong working relationship with and understanding of the California Legislature, making her uniquely qualified for this position,” Alvarez said in a December 2014 letter distributed to Senate staff and obtained by Capital Public Radio.

As Secretary of the Senate, Alvarez is the chamber’s executive officer and responsible for its day-to-day operations. He reports to the Rules Committee, the chamber’s governing body chaired by De León.

The committee picked Alvarez to be secretary of the Senate in the fall of 2014, as the house leadership transitioned to De León from outgoing President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The HR hiring was one of Alvarez’s first major staffing decisions.

Watt said Alvarez knew Oropeza well before he hired her — a sentiment echoed by several Senate staffers. According to his bio on the Senate’s website, Alvarez led the Senate budget and education committees while Oropeza was a top education budget writer at the governor’s Department of Finance and worked at the Department of Education.

“From the very beginning, there was that friendliness between them that you don’t get with someone you just met,” Watt said. “It’s clear they’ve been colleagues.”

Oropeza, Alvarez and De León’s office all declined comment on whether the two had ever known, interacted with or worked with each other beforehand.

A second senator’s chief of staff was concerned at the time of Oropeza’s hiring, which followed the retirement of a previous HR director amid concerns of nepotism and favoritism.

“I couldn’t understand why Danny was bringing in somebody who was not an HR professional to handle HR — especially under the circumstances of having so many irregularities revealed in the operation as it was,” the chief of staff said.

De León’s office defended the search process. In his statement, Underland called it “an open, bipartisan and rigorous candidate search” that resulted in hiring “an eminently qualified and respected public servant with decades of experience in human resources, state government administration and public financing.”

But the source familiar with the process said the three-member interview committee was not unanimous.

‘What In The World Were They Doing?’  

Six current or former chiefs of staff to senators in both political parties, who engage the Senate HR office on a day-to-day basis, expressed concerns about Oropeza’s record-keeping and responsiveness. Capital Public Radio granted anonymity after each cited concerns about job security and fears of retaliation.

Oropeza “doesn’t seem to understand basic employment law and often contradicts herself when attempting to provide direction on handling personnel issues,” said the first chief of staff, adding that it can take weeks to get in touch with her. “Her insufficient record-keeping and inability to recall details of meetings make it really difficult to solve personnel issues.”

“Any time I’m going to have to contact HR, I know it’s going to be a process,” a third chief of staff said. When it comes to even routine questions such as promotions, raises and employee leave, getting a response is “a big, long process” and the answers are often different.

“There’s just a feeling of inconsistency that keeps you guessing all the time,” the third chief of staff added. “It just feels subject to change at any time at any whim.”

The third chief agreed that Oropeza is very hard to reach. “Heaven forbid you’re in the bathroom when she calls, because it starts off this whole back-and-forth thing that especially when we’re in session, it’s just, I don’t have time for this.”

The concerns about Oropeza are not universal; a handful of chiefs of staff contacted by Capital Public Radio reported mixed or even favorable experiences.

But several chiefs who expressed concerns attributed Oropeza’s lag in response time — at least in part — to Alvarez’s management style.

“She basically could not make a decision without running it up the flagpole,” said the second chief of staff. “There was never anything that I asked her that she could answer directly without seeking direction from [Alvarez].”

That was echoed by the first chief: “I cannot recall a single instance when she’s ever given me an answer or any direction without asking Danny first. She tells me she will check with Danny and get back to me. It can take a while to hear back and sometimes I never do.”

Those issues have filtered back to people who work in the HR office. “I hear in the hallways, that – ‘What’s going on in HR? What’s going on in your office?’” Watt said, adding that the concerns about Oropeza are valid.

Oropeza and Alvarez declined comment when asked to discuss allegations related to her job performance.

The chiefs of staff also questioned HR’s rules and procedures when complaints are made. This concern was echoed by an attorney representing one of the three former staffers in Mendoza’s office who were terminated in September.

The lawyer, Micha Liberty, has argued that the staffers reported Mendoza’s alleged sexual misconduct toward the young female Fellow in early September. They had also previously complained of a hostile work environment created by Mendoza’s district office director. They were fired on September 22.

But the Senate has denied ever receiving reports from Mendoza’s staff about his inappropriate behavior toward the Fellow until an exit interview on September 22.

“It is important to note that the employees in question were already terminated before any complaint,” Alvarez said in a statement last month. “There was no connection between their termination and the subsequent complaint.” The Senate said it stands by this timeline.

Liberty is skeptical, however. “With respect to the allegations about Sen. Mendoza, we have seen no evidence that Senate HR kept or maintained documentation one would expect when receiving reports about inappropriate behavior or unethical behavior,” she said.

The Senate was on recess during the six weeks that the female Fellow remained in Mendoza’s office. The lawmaker was not placed on leave — as Letizia and Harrison say alleged perpetrators often are — and he was free to enter his Capitol office any time he wanted.

“What in the world were they doing?” Harrison said after learning of this chain of events.

Even though Mendoza is an elected official who can only be suspended by a two-thirds vote of his colleagues, Harrison said the Senate still should have taken action to show it was taking the harassment complaint seriously.

For example, she said, De León could have formally asked Mendoza to take a leave of absence — something the pro Tem did not do until December 14, nearly three months later. Or, “at the very least,” Harrison said De León could have told him, “‘I need you to promise not to have any contact with the victim.’ There should’ve been an instruction in writing to that effect.”

Instead, the Senate did not notify Mendoza at all. He only learned about the allegations against him on November 6, six weeks after the original complaint. “That’s not a professional HR response,” Harrison said.

“Once the information was brought forward, you would want to separate those two parties pending the outcome of an investigation, which either does or does not substantiate the claim,” Letizia agreed.

Otherwise, he said, “you are opening yourself up to having [the Fellow] exposed to further behavior that’s considered inappropriate in the workplace.”

Copyright 2018 Capital Public Radio