California #MeToo leader accused of sexual misconduct

FILE - In this June 22, 2016 file photo, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D- Bell Gardens, speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Garcia, the head of California's legislative women's caucus and a leading figure in the anti-sexual harassment movement is herself the subject of a sexual misconduct claim, Politico reported Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Rich Pedroncelli

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, the head of the Legislative Women's Caucus and a leading figure in the state's anti-sexual harassment movement, is accused of groping a male staffer from another lawmaker's office, according to a report published Thursday.

The incident occurred in a dugout after a softball game in 2014 and now is being investigated by the Assembly, Politico reported. Daniel Fierro didn't report it at the time but in January mentioned it to his former boss, Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who reported it to Assembly leaders.

Fierro, who was 25 at the time, said after the game Garcia stroked his back, squeezed his buttocks and attempted to touch his crotch. He said he was interviewed by an outside law firm hired by the Assembly Rules Committee last Friday. Politico also reported that a lobbyist who declined to be named claimed Garcia made crude sexual comments and tried to grab his crotch at a 2017 fundraiser.

Garcia, who has spoken out strongly against her male colleagues who have been accused of sexual harassment, said she was unaware of the claims until Thursday.

"Every complaint about sexual harassment should be taken seriously and I will participate fully in any investigation that takes place," the Los Angeles-area lawmaker said in a statement. "I have zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values."

Fierro and the lobbyist said it appeared Garcia was inebriated at the time of the encounters.

In a November interview with The Associated Press about alcohol-fueled fundraisers and other after-work events that are a part of regular business in Sacramento, Garcia said blaming alcohol isn't an acceptable excuse for sexually inappropriate behavior. It's men who chose to misbehave, not the social events themselves, that create the problems, she said.

"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."

The Assembly committee said last week that eight allegations of sexual harassment are pending in the Assembly but did not divulge any names. Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer, didn't respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking confirmation that Garcia is under investigation and clarifying whether Fierro's allegation is one of the eight pending.

Fierro, of Cerritos, now runs a communications firm. He previously worked for Calderon, who became the majority leader. Lerna Shirinian, Calderon's communications director, said Fierro told her about the incident right after it happened.

"He was in shock, I was in shock — but the culture was very different back then," Shirinian said.

Garcia was elected in 2012 and has carved out a name as a champion of women's issues and environmental health for poor communities. She chairs the Women's Caucus and her photo was featured in Time Magazine's Person of the Year issue on being one of the "Silence Breakers" on sexual harassment.

"I refuse to work with (Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra) and anyone who takes part in harassment or assault," she tweeted in October after it was reported Bocanegra had been disciplined in 2009 for groping a colleague. Bocanegra later resigned after more women made public accusations.

Garcia was a fierce advocate for legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday giving legislative staff members whistleblower protections for reporting sexual misconduct or other misbehavior, speaking at a rally on the Capitol steps after its passage. She's tweeted repeatedly about the importance of sexual consent in recent days.

Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva, co-chair of the women's caucus, said she was "shocked and disturbed" at the allegations and she will ask the group to meet soon to discuss Garcia's fate as leader.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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