(AP) — California state Sen. Tony Mendoza agreed Wednesday to take a paid leave of absence during an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct, a reversal from his defiant stance that came after nearly four hours of arm-twisting from fellow Democrats.
“To take away any type of appearance of impropriety or giving any type of special influence, I have decided that I will take a leave of absence for the month of January to allow the investigation to move forward,” he said after Democrats emerged from the closed door meeting.
Mendoza didn’t say what prompted him to change his mind from earlier Wednesday, when he declared he shouldn’t be pushed aside for “allegedly making someone feel uncomfortable.”
Mendoza is accused of behaving inappropriately toward three young women who worked for him, including by inviting one to his home and offering another alcohol when she was underage.
One of his former staff members filed a formal complaint with the state alleging she was fired for reporting his behavior, the Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday.
The question of what to do with Mendoza dominated the Senate’s first day back in Sacramento since allegations of widespread sexual harassment broke in October. In the Assembly, where two Democrats resigned over claims, Speaker Anthony Rendon urged his colleagues to be “active protectors” when it comes to seeing or hearing about inappropriate behavior.
Mendoza’s voluntary leave of absence appeared to be the best choice for the Artesia Democrat, whose family watched from the Senate gallery.
Other options including suspending or expelling him, which Republican Sen. Andy Vidak planned to propose.
“This action today has set a dangerous precedent in that any legislator can be faced with any accusation from anyone and be subjected to a harsh penalty without the benefit of presenting his/her side of the story,” Mendoza said in a statement released late Wednesday.
The Senate has hired two law firms to handle all sexual harassment allegations for the next two years, including the claims against Mendoza, but he says he has not been contacted by them. He urged investigators to move quickly and said he’ll return Feb. 1 regardless of whether the investigation has concluded.
“I’m still waiting for it,” he said.
Senators scattered quickly after the session and President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon didn’t comment on what happened behind closed doors.
Adriana Ruelas, his former legislative director, filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing accusing Mendoza and the Senate of retaliation, the Bee reported.
She says she reported Mendoza’s repeated inappropriate overtures to a young Senate fellow who worked in his office before being fired in September. Her complaint alleges Mendoza invited the young woman to his home and had her drive him to an overnight event and suggested he would stop by her hotel room in the evening, the newspaper reported.
Two other women accused Mendoza of behaving inappropriately toward them during his time in the Legislature, including offering alcohol to one of them when she was underage and asking the other to one-on-one meetings over dinner or drinks.
He’s denied wrongdoing and noted early Wednesday that none of the accusations include unwanted touching.
Still, some of his colleagues wanted to see him removed from office entirely.
“After four hours of horse trading in the Senate Democrat caucus, the only thing that Californians get is Mendoza agreeing to take a vacation?
That’s it? All too typical for the mighty California State Senate these days,” Vidak said.
In the Assembly, former lawmakers Raul Bocangera and Matt Dababneh, Los Angeles Democrats, both stepped down over allegations of groping or lewd behavior.
Asked if any other sitting lawmakers are facing allegations, Rendon told reporters he does not comment on human resources issues. But he urged his colleagues to work for a better Capitol culture.
“We must provide that protection for those who work here and those whose work requires them to come here,” Rendon said. “We can do better, we must do better.”