Eleni Kounalakis, who will succeed Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom as lieutenant governor in January, said during the campaign that her priorities would include curtailing sexual harassment in the workplace and holding perpetrators accountable.
Since she will also serve as a University of California regent and California State University trustee, those institutions might be good places to start.
Many Californians are no longer shocked by reports that state officials have spent millions of tax dollars to settle sexual misconduct claims against state legislators, legislative staff and other public and university employees. Ten public university campuses alone have paid multimillion-dollar settlements. Such payments need to stop; theyre a disgusting use of taxpayer funds and an insulting betrayal of the public trust.
The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown responded to these revelations with Senate Bill 820 banning nondisclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases, which perpetrators used to silence victims and keep the public in the dark. The law takes effect Jan.1.
The state budget also includes $1.5 million to track sexual misconduct complaints across state government departments. And the Senate and Assembly are now required to keep harassment complaint records for a minimum of 12 years. These changes improve transparency and accountability, but bold reforms are still needed.
Investigations of sexual misconduct complaints against state legislators, their staffs and other government employees should be conducted by independent outside experts with proven records of thoroughness and impartiality.
In June, the Legislature announced plans to hand over much of its authority to investigate sexual harassment complaints against state lawmakers and legislative staff to a new specialized investigative unit and a panel of experts that would recommend remedies. This is a step in the right direction. But it doesnt apply to all government employees nor completely lift the cloak of secrecy that protects Capitol insiders.
The best disinfectant, of course, is sunshine. And state lawspecifically the ironically named Legislative Open Records Act of 1975works against that, exempting public disclosure of misconduct complaints and investigations against legislators and their staffs.
LORA should be amended. A sunshine version of the law would give the public access to detailed summaries of investigations, including the names of the accuser and accused, the allegation, specific dates, and the investigative findings. Justice requires the names of all parties to be disclosed.
Disciplinary action based on the findings, such as reprimand, demotion, suspension or job termination, and any compensation adjustments, also should be part of the public record. The summaries should be released as a matter of course on a searchable internet database. The public has a right to know key details of any investigation.
The California Tort Claims Act also should be amended to state explicitly that taxpayers, through public entities, shall not pay when legislators or government employees are found liable for a recoverable offense clearly outside the bounds of their job descriptions, including sexual misconduct or retaliation against complainants. Taxpayers should not be used as piggy banks to bail out California public servants for misconduct, sexual or otherwise.
Today, almost without exception, public entities defend and indemnify public employees in civil proceedings for actions taken while at work, including sexual misconduct. This must change. Misconduct will continue as long as wrongdoers can shift costs onto taxpayers and escape full accountability. Civil tort proceedings should determine monetary compensation, if any, and it should be paid by the offender, not taxpayers.
Instead of paying for settlements, taxpayer money would be better spent on helping solve crimes of sexual violence. A good first step would be eliminating Californias staggering backlog of untested rape kits, estimated to be 13,615. At $1,500 per test, all of the kits could have been analyzed had the $24 million of taxpayer funds spent on sexual misconduct settlements been used for the tests.
Lt. Gov.-elect Kounalakis has an opportunity to make a difference here. Lets hope she matches her words with bold deeds to help bring sunshine to Californias public institutions.