A California lawmaker who has gained national recognition for fighting against sexual misconduct in the state Capitol is accused of groping a former legislative staffer.
The staffer, Daniel Fierro, told The Washington Post on Thursday that Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who has become a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement, approached him alone after an assembly softball game in 2014, squeezed his buttocks and tried to touch his crotch. He said Garcia was visibly intoxicated.
Fierro, who was 25 at the time, did not report the incident because he worried about the long-term consequences that could come with accusing the powerful lawmaker, who chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus and the Natural Resources Committee. But in January he told his former boss, Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who referred the matter to an assembly panel that is now investigating Garcia.
Politico was the first to report on Fierro’s allegations. The story also included sexual misconduct allegations against Garcia from an anonymous male lobbyist that The Post was not able to independently verify.
In a statement sent to The Post through a spokeswoman, Garcia said she did not recall doing anything wrong.
“The details of these claims have never been brought to my attention until today,” the statement read. “I can confirm that I did attend the 2014 legislative softball game with a number of members and my staff. I can also say I have zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values.”
Garcia has established herself as a champion of women’s rights and an advocate for victims since she was elected to the legislature in 2012. In the past year, she has become a leader in the state’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct and an outspoken voice in the #MeToo movement that has swept through the country.
She was one of more than 140 women who signed a letter last fall decrying what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment in the California legislature and in politics generally. She has also spoken out forcefully against male colleagues accused of sexual misconduct, in some cases calling for them to resign. Her Twitter feed is filled with posts promoting awareness about sexual harassment.
When Time magazine unveiled its “Person of the Year” issue in December, Garcia’s photo was among the dozens of pictures of “Silence Breakers” who went public about their experiences as the victims of sexual misconduct. Garcia tweeted her surprise at the distinction, saying, “I didn’t know I was part of the story . . . it’s an awkwardly humbling experience, but I am proud of this work and the company I’m in.”
In November, Garcia told the Associated Press in a story about sexual harassment at after-work political events that alcohol was no excuse for inappropriate behavior. “I would say that most of the public realizes that our job is based on relationships, and so we are expected to go out there and socialize,” she said. “I think our public also expects us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Fierro, who now runs a communications firm, said Garcia was slurring her words and swaying back and forth when she approached him in the softball field dugout after the 2014 game. At first he was concerned about her falling over. Then, he said, she grabbed him.
“When she crossed that line, that’s when I was like, this is something completely different than I thought it was. I was shocked,” Fierro told The Post. “I didn’t know how to deal with it if it went any further.”
Fierro said he immediately told two co-workers about what happened. They confirmed to Politico that he had done so.
For more than three years, Fierro kept quiet about the incident. He said it was “an embarrassing situation that I didn’t want to think about.” He said he never felt threatened by Garcia, nor did he fear any imminent retaliation, and he noted that he had no trouble extricating himself from the encounter. He added that Garcia appeared so drunk that he would not be surprised if she did not remember that day.
Even after the #MeToo movement took off last year, Fierro was initially reluctant to come forward out of concern that it might distract from the many women who have made claims against powerful men in politics, entertainment and media. But that changed as the discussion about sexual misconduct heated up in Sacramento and nationwide.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what it was but it probably wasn’t that. I mean, how could that happen to me?’ ” Fierro said. “But the power dynamic was there.”
Garcia’s activism and her growing national profile were a major factor as well, added Fierro, who lives in Garcia’s district. “People had an impression of Cristina,” he said. “I knew that I had had an experience that didn’t jibe with what was she was saying, and that kind of hypocrisy was really hard to stomach.”
In addition to her activism on women’s issues, Garcia was a strong proponent of a measure signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this week protecting legislative staff members who report sexual misconduct or other legal or ethical violations. When the legislation was introduced last fall, Garcia vowed not to work with any lawmakers who had been accused of sexual harassment.
Garcia’s communications director, Teala Schaff, said Garcia was notified on Jan. 23 that someone had filed a sexual harassment claim against her but was not given any details. The Assembly Rules Committee, which is handling the investigation, has not scheduled an interview with her, Schaff told The Post.
Fierro has been interviewed in connection with the probe. He told The Post he does not have a position on what the outcome should be for Garcia. That is up to the legislature to determine, he said.
“The truth is the truth, and that’s why I said it,” Fierro said. “It’s about finding out the truth and creating a culture that makes it safe for everybody.”
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