SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia — a leader in the #MeToo movement — took a voluntary unpaid leave of absence Friday amid an investigation into whether she groped a former legislative staff member in 2014.
It's the latest claim against a lawmaker to go public. And the way it became public is drawing criticism from the man alleging the misconduct.
Daniel Fierro thought his claim would remain confidential when he shared his story last month with his old boss, Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, a Democrat. Calderon followed state legislative protocol and took it to the Assembly's Rules Committee, which investigates claims.
Days after Calderon made the report, Fierro said, to his surprise, several journalists and a politically connected acquaintance called him to ask about his claim.
"That was what really disturbed me," Fierro told The Associated Press. "The process is supposed to be confidential in part so that people feel comfortable they can make complaints."
Tom White, chief of staff for Calderon, said neither Calderon nor anyone in his office leaked the complaint alleging Garcia, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, groped Fierro in the dugout after a legislative softball game in August 2014. The head of the Rules Committee, Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat, said the committee keeps all complaints confidential.
"The Assembly Rules Human Resources process for receiving, evaluating and investigating complaints is entirely confidential, and confidentiality has been carefully observed by those responsible for carrying out such actions," he said. "I know of no reason to be concerned about the confidentiality of our processes and procedures.
Critics said Fierro's experience is evidence of a flawed system that encourages victims to stay silent.
"There's a reason that they haven't been coming forward — because they're afraid. If they don't have the guarantee of confidentiality, there's going to be many, many victims who never come forward," said Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, the sponsor of a bill giving legislative staff members whistleblower protections that Gov. Jerry Brown signed Monday.
At least eight allegations of harassment are pending in the Assembly, and the complaint against Garcia is the first to be made public this year. Complaints against Raul Bocangera and Matt Dababneh, two Democratic lawmakers who resigned last year, went public when women shared the accusations against them.
A joint subcommittee tasked with revamping the Legislature's sexual harassment policies will review how complaints are reported and how to ensure they remain confidential.
The Assembly has not released further details about the pending allegations. Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, meanwhile, said Assembly human resources officials will reach out to staff members in Garcia's office to make sure they feel safe now that the complaint against her is public.
Garcia denied the claims in a Friday statement announcing her unpaid leave, which she said she is taking to minimize distractions and avoid appearances of exerting influence on the investigation.
"Upon reflection of the details alleged, I am certain I did not engage in the behavior I am accused of," Garcia said in a statement. "However, as I've said before, any claims about sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard of accountability. "
An anonymous male lobbyist told Politico on Thursday that Garcia made a crude sexual remark and tried to grab his crotch at a May 2017 fundraiser. Both the lobbyist and Fierro said Garcia appeared to be drunk at the time of the incidents.
Garcia was one of nearly 150 women who signed a letter in October calling attention to what they described as a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol and said that she herself has been the target of groping and inappropriate remarks by people in the building.
She criticized two male colleagues accused of misconduct before both resigned last year, and she was featured in Time Magazine's Person of the Year issue on sexual harassment titled "Silence Breakers."
On Monday, she was one of the featured speakers at a Capitol rally in favor of the whistleblower protections.
Her outspokenness is what prompted Fierro to share his story.
"If the person leading the charge on it isn't credible it just ends up hurting the credibility of these very real stories," Fierro said.