I reported my harassment in the California Legislature. Then state investigators went after me

In a recent interview, California Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins said it was “disappointing and hard to hear that there are (legislative staffers) who still have concerns” about the harassment reporting process in the Legislature.

“I would just encourage staff to reach out,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re being addressed.”

But I can tell you what really happens when victims “reach out” to the California Legislature after they experience harassment. And I can assure you it has little to do with making sure the concerns of victims are being met.

THE HARASSMENT

In 2017, almost 200 women signed a letter detailing pervasive harassment issues in the Capitol. In response, the Legislature created the Workplace Conduct Unit (WCU) — hailed as an “independent” investigatory body free of political interference — to probe all allegations of harassment and discrimination. The Legislature also passed a new Policy on Appropriate Workplace Conduct that created clear guidelines for what constitutes misconduct and mandated that supervisors report any allegations of harassment to the investigatory unit.

Requiring supervisors to report all allegations of misbehavior directly to the WCU may seem like an insignificant change, but it was considered an essential reform. As Assembly Member Laura Friedman, D-Glendale (Los Angeles County), explained in a 2018 interview: “In the past, you were asking HR people (who work for the Legislature under partisan leadership) to make a determination … which will always be seen as being biased.”

The goal wasn’t just to hold Harvey Weinstein-like predators accountable, but also to adjudicate smaller workplace incidents before they spiraled into something bigger — and to prevent favoritism from clouding the waters of an investigation. Legislative leaders touted this essential reform and accepted the accompanying accolades when they were lauded for providing the greatest worker protections of any state legislature in the country.

In March 2019, shortly after these policy changes were implemented, I joined the district office of Menlo Park Democratic Assembly Member Marc Berman as a field representative. I was 24 years old.

Our district office was just four full-time staffers and a rotating series of interns. From the very beginning, I was told to view our office as a group of friends, rather than co-workers, since we would be spending long days, nights and often weekends, together.

The district director of our office — my direct supervisor — made me uncomfortable almost immediately. My experience working under this district director would ultimately be the subject of WCU investigations and of a workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaint that I filed with the state agency charged with investigating such claims.

I noticed the way my supervisor behaved with another female subordinate employee, who has since moved to Berman’s Capitol office in Sacramento. In front of other staff, my supervisor flirted with this other female employee by, for example, paying for her lunches, eating from the same container as her as if they were on a date and sitting next to her desk all day. He’d subtly but overtly touch her hair, arm and hand. He’d asked her to apply a pain therapy pad to his bare back. In one instance, she asked him to unknot part of her necklace that dangled off the chain. I watched as he pinned her up against his desk, in between his legs, and worked on the necklace for minutes while it lay on her chest.

Some of his misconduct was directed toward me. Once, when I asked him why he treated the other staffer more favorably, he said it’s because she did not have a husband to care for her. I, on the other hand, was recently married — and I understood him to mean that he was interested in women who were willing to flirt with him. My “unavailability” meant that I was not. Beyond that, he would comment on the physical attractiveness of female colleagues — both legislators and staff — including, for example, ranking their bodies on a scale of 1 to 10.

My supervisor reduced me and the other professional women in our proximity to our sexual appeal and availability. It was clear to me through this behavior that for women to advance in the office, we’d need to at least tolerate these exploits, if not play along.

And the degree to which I could choose to play along would come to haunt me down the road.

THE STONEWALLING

After four months on the job, I called my chief of staff in the Sacramento Capitol office to file a complaint. I poured out what I had been holding in: the behavior, the discomfort, my confusion, pain and shame — as well as similar stories our interns had shared with me.

There was a palpable silence once I stopped speaking. He told me it sounded like “cliqueness” instead of harassment, and that he’d need to ask my supervisor — whom I had just reported — about my allegation. I begged him not to. He finally agreed and said he would escalate the complaint to Berman and an Assembly human resources consultant. I felt reassured, as I understood that he was obligated to report my allegation to the WCU as well: The Legislature’s new protocol, which is available on the WCU’s website, states that “supervisors,” which includes chiefs of staff, “must report any complaints of misconduct to the Workplace Conduct Unit immediately so that the complaint can be resolved.”

After I hung up with my chief of staff, I sent a follow-up text thanking him. I was genuinely grateful. I didn’t want my supervisor fired. I just wanted his misbehavior to end — and for him to be held accountable if it didn’t. The WCU was created for this very reason.

I waited for weeks, months and eventually over a year. No one from the Assembly or the WCU contacted me.

Because prematurely leaving a job in the Legislature can make it nearly impossible to be hired again in the Capitol, I stayed in my position and kept a smile on my face in the office. But I’d frequently sob on my drive home, at times having to pull over to regain my composure. I’d spend nights awake replaying the conversation with my chief of staff. I wondered if I should follow-up but was paralyzed by the thought of jeopardizing my career further.

Over time, I began to convince myself that I was the problem.

But then, a year into the job, I was denied a significant pay increase I was promised. And what I was told as the reasons why raised red flags.

Former Assembly staff member Ruth Ferguson is now a public policy graduate student at UC Berkeley.

Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle

THE RETALIATION

Before I accepted my job offer — in an attempt to convince me to join the office despite the low pay — Assembly Member Berman said I could receive a “considerable raise” at my one-year mark if the budget allowed and performance merited. But when that time came around, I was denied anything resembling a considerable raise.

That’s when I began to think that the problem wasn’t with me. And I wondered if the same tactics that the Legislature has allegedly used for decades to push out women who report harassment were now being used against me.

In April 2020, I was working from home during the COVID-19 shutdown and decided to anonymously call the WCU to ask for advice. When I explained the situation to an investigator, she asked if I would file a formal complaint. I was terrified, confused and felt like I needed an exit plan before I could report anything to the WCU officially. I refused to file a formal complaint at that time but said I would call back in the future.

Three months later, I answered a phone call from a private number. It was another WCU investigator.

She informed me that her office received an anonymous complaint of misconduct in Berman’s office. The way she phrased things made me believe that someone else had come forward with similar allegations as my own, especially since I had previously refused to file an anonymous complaint. And I understood that my chief of staff — a mandatory reporter — was required to report my complaint from the previous year. Comforted that I wasn’t alone, I explained everything to the investigator on the record.

And yet there were no other complainants.

Despite my saying that I wasn’t ready, the unit got me to believe that someone other than me had contacted them. I felt like I had been tricked into reporting to the WCU.

On that call, the WCU investigator told me that the unit opened a preliminary investigation into my allegations. Two months later, I was told that the unit opened a formal investigation and had notified my district director and chief of staff of my allegations. Despite previously telling me that the WCU would do everything to keep my identity anonymous, I was informed my name had been shared with my chief of staff.

I asked why they hadn’t investigated when I reported to my chief of staff in July 2019. That’s when she told me they didn’t have any record of the complaint I made.

The WCU investigator’s admission confirmed that my allegations were not properly submitted to the WCU in July 2019 when I first reported them — inaction that is inconsistent with the California Legislative Policy on Appropriate Workplace Conduct, as published by the WCU itself. I felt like I had been manipulated into silence. And I complied, embarrassed by what I trained myself to believe was a problem with me.

Once a formal investigation opened, my chief of staff and the Assembly Rules Committee engaged in what I perceived to be clear cut retaliation against me. For the first time, just one month after the investigation opened, I received a critical written review of my job performance. Responsibilities for which I had been complimented on just days earlier were swiftly taken away. When I asked specific questions about these slights over email, I received no answers in writing. Instead, my chief of staff tried to force me into a meeting with only him and a human resources consultant with the Rules Committee. When I said that I intended to bring my father-in-law, who works as a lawyer, as an observer, my chief of staff cancelled the meeting.

I now believe this to be textbook retaliation, but at the time I was terrified and unsure of where to turn. Human resources didn’t offer to transfer me to another office. Nor did they place me or my supervisors on administrative leave.

On Oct. 28, 2020, the stress became unbearable, and I successfully qualified for medical leave.

While on leave I participated in a grueling 12-hour interview process with the WCU, during which investigators questioned my memory, sensitivity and work product. Among the things I told the investigators was how my supervisor would tell the office that I was sexually attracted to male colleagues when I was friendly to them — suggestions that I was deeply uncomfortable with but eventually learned not to make a big deal about in an effort to stay on his good side. Investigators asked me to do other things like film myself making a sexualized tongue gesture.

I provided the WCU with screenshots of text messages and photos that showed the behavior, a detailed timeline, contemporaneous texts with my spouse that outlined the harassment and time-stamped notes on my phone that documented the report I made to my chief of staff (including harassment issues that were shared with me by our interns).

Put simply, my case wasn’t an example of what is often discounted as merely “he said/she said.”

I largely hid out during the entire year it took for the WCU to complete its investigation. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder on top of the debilitating depression I was experiencing.

Almost two years after I first reported the harassment to my chief of staff and after a full year of the official WCU investigation, I received a letter signed by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon stating that the Legislature could not substantiate my allegations of retaliation, that I was treated unfairly or that my supervisor had had a flirtatious relationship with my co-worker. Rendon, D-Lakewood (Los Angeles County), also noted that I was not allowed to see the report that ruled against me, because it was subject to attorney-client privilege. This stunning admission contradicts claims made by leadership and the WCU that the unit is “independent” from the Legislature. This formal relationship means that the WCU literally represents the interests of the Legislature and not the public.

Although the WCU did not substantiate my allegations, it did concede that evidence showed my supervisor behaved inappropriately when he did things like touch my co-worker’s hair and body, comment on the attractiveness of individuals and engage in “overly familiar conduct” with staff. (The WCU did not, to my knowledge, find that the other female employee had behaved inappropriately.)

My supervisor’s punishment? Counseling. He remains on the job to this day.

To my knowledge, my chief of staff also wasn’t held accountable for his role in failing to appropriately report my allegations or the retaliation I believe ensued. I later learned that an intern corroborated elements of my story to the WCU, telling investigators about their discomfort over what they perceived to be an inappropriate relationship and behaviors. Still, the WCU unsubstantiated my allegation.

That’s when I filed my workplace discrimination complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in May 2021, detailing the experience I just described. It named as respondents the Assembly, the WCU and its independent panel, Berman’s chief of staff, my district director, Speaker Rendon and a human resources consultant. At the same time, I asked the department to grant me the immediate right to sue — that is, it would close its case without a response from the respondents so that I can instead pursue my case in state or federal court. I have not sued, and although I have until May 21 to do so, I don’t intend to.

But the matter doesn’t end there. Also in May 2021, I received a letter from the WCU notifying me that it would now investigate my conduct.

The allegations against me largely concerned instances in which, as I had previously reported, my supervisor had harassed me, including whether I said I was sexually attracted to a pastor with whom I worked. Or the water delivery person. These were examples of the harassment I was forced to endure, I told the investigators. But in the WCU’s version of the story, I was the instigator.

This is a strategy so commonly employed by harassers that the acronym DARVO (Deny Attack Reverse Victim and Offender) is used for shorthand.

I sent the WCU text messages from my supervisor which, I explained, contradicted these claims and backed up my story. But the WCU instead substantiated the allegations “based on a preponderance of evidence.”

This episode raised questions in my mind about the Legislature’s willingness to facilitate retaliation.

Again, I was not allowed to see the report.

I fully participated in both investigations because I wanted to believe in this system, in the California Legislature and in the many promises made by Rendon and Atkins.

But the Legislature didn’t just let me down — it punished me for coming forward.

The intensity of the betrayal and undeserved shame I felt throughout this process has been all-consuming. I hadn’t previously understood how devastated and scared I could feel. There were any number of times I considered that things might be better for me and those I love if I no longer existed. Without the privilege of my personal safety net — a network of people who buoyed me both emotionally and financially — I can honestly say I would not still be here.

Since I took my leave in October 2020, I have privately lobbied several legislators in the Senate and the Assembly and asked them to address inequities in the system. I shared painful details of my story with each member and offered incremental policy alternatives that could improve the process. Eventually, my case and policy change suggestions were brought to the attention of the Legislative Women’s Caucus as a formal agenda item during its December 2021 retreat.

I was later told that I was not the first person to share concerns about the WCU, as members had heard several complaints — but they felt like there was nothing they could do.

To be clear, protecting marginalized staffers cannot and should not be the sole responsibility of female elected officials. However, that is the fight to which the Legislative Women’s Caucus has committed. In fact, two days after the caucus told me its hands were tied, Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a press conference that the caucus would “never, never back down from attacks on the civil and human rights of women in America.”

That promise was again put to the test just weeks later when staffers took matters into their own hands and shared hundreds of complaints that showed the Legislature’s so-called #MeToo “reckoning” had failed. An anonymous Instagram account that shared allegations of abuse was mysteriously shut down within just a few days, but the allegations reverberated throughout the Capitol.

Yet, the Women’s Caucus and legislative leadership have remained silent.

These stunning displays of apathy underscore the crisis described by advocates for years: the Legislature knows what happens to those who try to report harassment, yet still it refuses to take actions that would stop the alleged abuse.

And so now, I am refusing to let it silence me.

THE SOLUTION

Oversight and transparency are the immediate first steps to addressing this institutional crisis. And victims and advocates aren’t the only ones who believe that. The Assembly Judiciary Committee tried to address this lack of transparency and oversight four years ago. In 2018, at the height of #MeToo scrutiny in the Legislature, the Assembly Judiciary Committee introduced AB2032, which would have allowed narrow public access to the Legislature’s misconduct records. This bill would have amended a law passed by the Legislature in 1975 to shield its own records from transparency, ironically named the Legislative Open Records Act. Committee Chair Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, argued that changes like simply creating the WCU couldn’t be effective without oversight and “that’s why changing (the open records act) is so important.”

Despite Stone’s efforts, AB2032 died in the Assembly Rules Committee without ever receiving a hearing.

Four years later, victims like me can clearly see why the same committee that enforces the outcomes of WCU investigations wouldn’t be keen on giving the public access to its records.

To empower the public, protect survivors and begin to correct the abusive culture in the Capitol, the Legislature must amend the open records act to require the release of all of its misconduct records — including cases that are unsubstantiated by the WCU.

Members of the Legislature had no problem approving the opening of police misconduct records in 2020 and again in 2021. Why won’t they live up to the standards they set for other institutions?

Advocates have been patient with the Legislature’s leadership as it has deflected responsibility over and over on this issue. Yet, all signs point to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Legislature is not as focused on truth and justice as it is on protecting the institution. Better to pretend that victims like me don’t exist or count on the likelihood that the system will silence us.

We’re tired of being made invisible.

I ask Senate Pro Tem Atkins and the other members who have spoken loftily on this issue to live up to your public promises to protect all victims — including the Legislature’s employees.

We await your response.

Ruth Ellenberg Ferguson is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and a board member of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee.

Editor’s note: WCU Executive Director Julia Johnson said her office could not comment on the specifics of Ferguson’s case, but that she takes criticisms of the WCU process seriously. “We’re evolving. We’re going to continue to evolve.”

Assembly Member Marc Berman provided The Chronicle with the following statement on behalf of his office: “I deeply regret that Ms. Ferguson had a negative experience working in my office. The Workplace Conduct Unit (WCU), an independent investigatory authority that was proposed by the Joint Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response in the wake of the #MeToo movement, conducted a remarkably thorough and extensive investigation into the allegations brought by Ms. Ferguson as well as additional issues that were identified during their investigation. I respect the conclusions reached by the WCU, and I support the remedial actions that were taken as a result. Due to the active threat of litigation from Ms. Ferguson against my office and the legislature, as well as the laws protecting the confidentiality of personnel matters, I am unable to comment further on the specifics of this matter.”

https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/I-reported-my-harassment-in-the-California-17076049.php

Zubair Q Britania

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