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California assemblywoman disciplined over sexual harassment allegations

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia speaks at the capitol in Sacramento in June 2016. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Cristina Garcia, a Democratic California assemblywoman once known for her leading role in the #MeToo movement, will be removed from all of her committee duties amid accusations that she sexually harassed former staffers.

An assembly investigation, which concluded Thursday, was unable to corroborate allegations that Garcia groped a former legislative staffer during an assembly softball game in 2014. However, the probe found that Garcia used vulgar language, in violation of the assembly’s sexual harassment policy, in addition to disparaging other members of the legislature and using staff for personal services, Garcia said in a news release.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, confirmed the investigation’s findings and said he is removing Garcia from all committee memberships and requiring her to undergo sensitivity training, counseling sessions and individual training on the assembly’s sexual harassment and violence prevention policy.

“Assemblymember Garcia has engaged in a pattern of behavior that must be addressed,” Rendon said in a news release. “As Speaker of the Assembly, I believe our members have the responsibility to treat constituents, staff, colleagues and the entire Capitol community with respect and dignity. Disappointingly, that has not always been the case with Assemblymember Garcia.”

The Assembly has not yet released its own public statement on the investigation’s outcome but informed Garcia and Daniel Fierro, the former staffer who accused her of groping him, according to the Associated Press. Garcia preemptively announced the probe’s findings in a news release Thursday, saying she had been “exonerated.”

“Earlier today I learned that the allegations of unwanted sexual harassment against me were found to be unsubstantiated,” Garcia wrote in the statement through a spokeswoman. In regard to the three issues that were substantiated, she apologized to her colleagues, staff and constituents for “instances where my use of language was less than professional.”

“I want to assure everyone that I have learned from this experience and will do everything in my power to make amends for my past,” Garcia said. She later clarified the substantiated allegations in a second news release, again apologizing for “any disrespect and dishonor I have brought to the institution.” She pledged to take “corrective action” in addition to the disciplinary action brought by Rendon.

Investigators found that Garcia “commonly and pervasively” used vulgar language around staff, according to a letter sent to attorney Dan Gilleon, who represents several former staffers accusing Garcia of misconduct, the AP reported.

Fierro told The Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins in February that Garcia approached him alone after an assembly softball game in 2014, squeezed his buttocks and tried to touch his crotch when Garcia appeared intoxicated. Fierro, who was 25 at the time, said he did not report the incident because he worried about the consequences of accusing a powerful lawmaker of misconduct.

Fierro told the Sacramento Bee Thursday that he is planning on appealing the investigation’s outcome. He also condemned Garcia for the way in which she announced the probe’s findings before they were finalized by the Assembly. Fierro has 10 days to appeal the results.

“I find it incredibly inappropriate that a sitting member of the Assembly would jump ahead of an established appeal process and release information before it was appropriate,” he told the Sacramento Bee. He also criticized the way the investigation was carried out, claiming that some of the witnesses he provided to the assembly were never interviewed.

“This is disappointing and it still leaves serious questions,” he said. “This process is incredibly opaque.”

Garcia has been on a voluntary, unpaid leave of absence since mid-February after Politico first reported on Fierro’s allegations against her. Once Fierro had come forward, Gilleon, the attorney, revealed additional sexual harassment allegations from four unnamed former staffers, who accused Garcia of talking about her sex life in front of staff, drinking alcohol at work and telling staffers they were expendable.

One of those former staffers, David John Kernick, accused Garcia of firing him after he refused to play a game of spin the bottle with her in her hotel room after a 2014 fundraiser. Kernick, who filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said he was written up for insubordination after he questioned the appropriateness of Garcia’s suggestion and was fired two days later, The Post’s Kristine Phillips reported.

In a statement in February, Garcia said the accusations were “simply not true and are inconsistent with my personal value system and how I seek to conduct myself as an elected official.” She added she believed the allegations were “part of a concerted effort to discredit my person and record as a legislator.”

The accusations were particularly stunning because of the national reputation Garcia had built as a leading voice in the #MeToo movement. She was among more than 140 women who signed a letter last fall condemning what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment in California and national politics.

California Democratic Assemblywoman and vocal #MeToo advocate Cristina Garcia is under investigation for allegedly groping a former male staffer. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post, Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/The Washington Post)

Elected to the legislature in 2012, she played a key role in her state’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct, and she forcefully called out male colleagues accused of inappropriate behavior. Her photo was also featured in Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue in December documenting the “Silence Breakers” who opened up about experiencing sexual misconduct.

Garcia previously headed the Legislative Women’s Caucus and chaired the assembly’s Natural Resources Committee. Now, relieved of her committee duties, Garcia’s work will mostly consist primarily of voting on bills.

Garcia’s spokeswoman, Teala Schaff, told The Washington Post that Garcia will also be responsible for “issue advocacy, accountability of funding appropriations, and upcoming budget considerations” before the legislature’s June 15 budget deadline.

The assemblywoman’s return date has not been set, Schaff said.