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 Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia took a voluntary unpaid leave of absence Friday, a day after sexual misconduct allegations against her became public.

Garcia, a Democrat and chair of the Legislative Women's Caucus, is accused of groping former legislative staff member Daniel Fierro in 2014, an allegation she denies. He reported the claim in January and it is now under formal investigation. Garcia said she's taking leave to avoid distractions and any appearance of influence over 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. "

Fierro did not comment on Garcia' decision. He's accused her of stroking his back, grabbing his buttocks and trying to grab his crotch in the dugout after a legislative softball game. 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, of Bell Gardens, has been a prominent voice for women's rights since she was elected in 2012, and more recently has spoken out in support of the #MeToo movement that's gripped the California Capitol and the nation.

She was one of nearly 150 women to sign an open letter in October calling out a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol and said she herself has been the target of groping and inappropriate remarks by people in the building. On Monday, she spoke at a rally outside the Capitol in favor of legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown giving legislative staff members whistleblower protections for reporting sexual misconduct or other misbehavior.

The movement prompted two assemblymen to resign last year, and Sen. Tony Mendoza is on suspension during an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior.

About two dozen sexual harassment allegations were made against Assembly lawmakers, staff and lobbyists in 2017 — the most within a single year since 2006 — and at least eight allegations are pending, according to documents released last week.

Fierro first reported the incident in January to his former boss, Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who reported it to Assembly leaders. Fierro said he decided to tell Calderon about the incident because of Garcia's outspokenness in the #MeToo movement, which has led to investigations in statehouses nationwide.

"If the person leading the charge on it isn't credible it just ends up hurting the credibility of these very real stories," Fierro told the AP.

Fierro, of Cerritos, left the Assembly in 2016 and now runs a communications firm. Calderon, his former boss, is now the majority leader.

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

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