Lawmaker seeks new life for proposal to protect whistleblowers

RIVERSIDE – A Riverside County lawmaker asked the California Legislative Women’s Caucus to join her in forming a united front in support of legislation that would establish protections for legislative staffers who report ethics or other breaches, including sexual harassment, by their bosses.

“It is my hope the women of the California Legislature will join me, and we can once and for all grant whistleblower protections to all legislative staff,” Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said in a letter submitted to the caucus. “This is our chance to not just talk about it, but to do something about it. Together, we can end the culture of corruption and sexual harassment in the state capitol.”

Melendez has written several bills in the last four years seeking to enshrine a Legislative Employee Whistleblower Protection Act into law.

Her most recent effort, Assembly Bill 403, died in June due to inaction by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach.

The bill received near unanimous support in the Assembly.

Melendez began her letter to the women’s caucus with references to the mushrooming scandal swirling around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged sexual transgressions are under investigation.

Since the allegations against Weinstein came to light, “assemblymembers, senators, legislative staffers and lobbyists have … felt confident enough to share their stories of sexual harassment while working (in) the Legislature,” Melendez said in her letter. “They have shared allegations of groping, sexual innuendoes and threats and promises about their future careers to keep them silent.”

Melendez appealed to caucus members to join her in coauthoring her next whistleblower protection bill and said lawmakers have “a responsibility to protect the integrity of the institution by creating an atmosphere of transparency and accountability.”

“Enough is enough. We cannot continue to allow legislative staff to risk their careers and their livelihood if they report sexual harassment, or any other type of illegal, unethical behavior,” she said.

AB 403 replicated a measure Melendez introduced in early 2016 – Assembly Bill 1788 — which also died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The “Legislative Employee Whistleblower Protection Act” sought to ensure that members of the Legislature, as well as their agents, face penalties for intimidating or threatening a person who attempts to draw attention to their misdeeds.

The law was intended to provide the same protections afforded employees in state agencies and the courts under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1999, freeing staffers to file ethics complaints or other official allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers or underlings without fear of retaliation.

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