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Thursday July 18th, 2019 1:28PM

California #MeToo leader cleared of groping allegations

By The Associated Press
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Outside investigators on Thursday cleared a California assemblywoman who was once at the forefront of the state's #MeToo movement of allegations that she groped a male staff member in 2014.

However, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia is still facing discipline for using vulgar language in violation of the chamber's sexual harassment policy.

Garcia, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, will have no committee assignments when she returns to work Monday after a voluntary three-month absence during the investigation.

Speaker Anthony Rendon, a fellow Democrat, said he's also requiring her to attend sensitivity training and a session about the chamber's sexual harassment policy.

The accusations against Garcia marked a surprising twist in the California Legislature's sexual misconduct reckoning that began last fall. Three male lawmakers resigned their seats after investigations found they likely engaged in sexual misconduct. Garcia had been vocal in calling on them to step aside.

Daniel Fierro, who made the groping complaint, said he might appeal the findings within the allowed 10-day window. He is a former staff member for another lawmaker.

Outside lawyers hired by the Assembly conducted the investigation, which covered Fierro's claims as well as allegations from several former Garcia staff members alleging heavy drinking and sex talk in the office as well as requests by Garcia to perform personal duties such as taking care of her dogs.

One former staffer, David Kernick, said Garcia asked him to play spin the bottle after a fundraiser.

In a letter to Dan Gilleon, a San Diego lawyer who represented the former Garcia staffers, investigators said they found evidence that Garcia "commonly and pervasively" used vulgar language, used staff to perform personal services and disparaged other elected officials. It said no other claims were substantiated.

The investigators haven't released full details on the findings, making it unclear what vulgar comments were made. But Rendon said Garcia has a "pattern of behavior that must be addressed."

"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," he said in a statement.

Garcia, for her part, apologized for the substantiated claims.

"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," she said in a statement. "I know that I can only effectively serve my constituents if staff and my colleagues feel comfortable and respected on the job."

Garcia previously acknowledged calling a former Assembly speaker a derogatory term for gays and making a disparaging comment about Asians, both of which drew swift rebuke from her Democratic colleagues.

Fierro and Gilleon criticized the Assembly's investigation process. Neither have seen the full report because of attorney-client privilege, according to letters sent to both by the Assembly Rules Committee.

Fierro said at least one of the witnesses he suggested was never interviewed by Assembly investigators. He alleged Garcia groped him after a legislative softball game in 2014 when she had been drinking.

"This is an incredibly opaque and questionable process," Fierro said.

None of Gilleon's clients were interviewed by Assembly investigators. He argued the process was not independent because the Assembly hired the investigator and he wanted a separate attorney in the room.

Garcia is running for re-election and faces a June 5 primary against six Democrats and one Republican. The two candidates with the most votes will advance to the November election.

The powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council has launched a $500,000 campaign against her, including television and newspaper ads highlighting the allegations of sexual misconduct and negative language.

"The news today will not change our course," Erin Lehane, a spokeswoman for the building trades, said in a text message. "What we already know, by Garcia's own admission, makes her a bad boss and a bad colleague."

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