A state assemblyman in California has been accused of masturbating in front of a lobbyist in the bathroom at a social gathering in the latest claims of work-related sexual impropriety leveled at a man in a position of power.
Matt Dababneh, a Democratic assemblyman who represents a district in Southern California, allegedly followed Pamela Lopez into a bathroom and masturbated in front of her, according to an account she gave at a news conference on Monday. Lopez said she has filed a complaint with the state assembly.
The accusation comes in the midst of a national reckoning on sexual misconduct in the workplace. The spotlight has been on California’s legislature since October, when more than 140 women, many with high-powered jobs, called out a “pervasive” culture of harassment in the state’s political world and asked other women to speak up.
Lopez, a lobbyist who works for K Street Consulting, had signed the letter and shared an account of the alleged assault in the New York Times at the time. But Monday was the first time she named the legislator she said was responsible.
According to Lopez, the episode took place during a wedding-related celebration in Las Vegas in January 2016. As she went to use a restroom, a “large body” rushed up behind her and pushed her into the room, she said.
“I spun around and realized that I was face to face with Matt Dababneh and that he had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating,” she said.
Lopez said Dababneh started moving toward her and “told me to touch his genitals” in explicit terms.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god. What do I do, what do I do?’” she said. “And I thought, make very clear that I do not want to be here and that there’s no misunderstanding. And, so I said several times, ‘No, I will not touch you.’”
Dababneh denied the allegations in a statement distributed by Elana Weiss, a spokeswoman with the Rose Group.
“I affirmatively deny that this event ever happened — at any time,” Dababneh said in the statement. “I am saddened by this lobbyist’s effort to create this falsehood and make these inflammatory statements, apparently for her own self-promotion and without regard to the reputation of others. I look forward to clearing my name.”
Patricia L. Glaser, a lawyer who is representing Dababneh, sent Lopez a cease-and-desist letter in advance of the news conference, calling the accusation a “false claim” and threatening legal action if the event proceeded.
“We are advised, also, that you may intend to repeat your false charges at a press conference on Monday,” the letter read. “If you proceed with your press conference or any other public statement and make any false and defamatory allegation against Mr. Dababneh, you will be held fully accountable in damages.”
Lopez’s lawyer, Jean Hyams, denounced the threat.
“This is the kind of tactic that frequently follows when men in positions of power with great amounts of resources learn that their behavior may be exposed,” she said. “Women are threatened with defamation lawsuits. The whisper network goes into high gear to try to shame them. But the shame does not belong to the women who were sexually harassed.”
Lopez said she had met Dababneh several times, including earlier at the party, but had never exchanged more than a few sentences with him.
She was joined at the news conference by Jessica Yas Barker, who said that Dababneh made sexual remarks to her as well as inappropriate remarks about her attire when she worked with him in 2008 in the office of a California congressman. She said he did not do anything unlawful but said she considered his behavior outside the “rules of common decency or professionalism.”
She said that Dababneh’s behavior was an “open secret,” in the district where they worked in the San Fernando Valley.
Barker said that Dababneh would talk to her about his “sexual prowess” and would talk about women he’d slept with or wanted to sleep with at events and fundraisers. At the office, he showed her condoms in his desk drawer, she said.
Barker said that she had spoken to other women who said they had been harassed by Dababneh.
“Who knows what my career would look like today had I been able to stay in a congressional office with a boss who was respectful and encouraging,” Barker said.
The account Lopez gave on Monday differed slightly from the one presented by the Times in October. In that story, the alleged assault was described as being at a bar in Sacramento. Hyams said that Lopez had affirmed a reporter’s question about whether the event was in Sacramento because she did not wish to identify Dababneh at the time.
“I realized in that moment that if I specified that I was at a specific event in Las Vegas, those details would make it possible to ID my perpetrator, and I wasn’t ready to do that,” Lopez said Monday.
Hyams said Lopez had no plans to file a criminal report but had not ruled out further legal action.
Lopez said she was encouraged to go public with her story on Monday because she “can’t have it on my conscience that this may happen again.”
“I’ve heard from enough women, that I am fearful and I am worried that this will happen to others again,” she said.