SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Legislature paid at least $580,000 in the last five years to settle harassment, racism and other claims, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
In one case, a payout included a stipulation forbidding the claimant from making “derogatory statements” about lawmakers or Senate business.
The previously unreported roughly $44,500 settlement in 2015 with former Senate human resources department employee Anita Belmontes and her lawyers was included in settlement documents obtained by the AP through a public records request. They provide the fullest picture yet of the level of taxpayer dollars spent since 2012 to settle claims.
The details of what led to Belmontes’ settlement and transfer to another Senate office were not disclosed in the documents and the Legislature shields its own investigative records from public view.
Her settlement is one of two reviewed by AP that included non-disparagement clauses. The language in Belmontes’ settlement was the broadest.
Jessica Levinson, an ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the provision is a clear restriction of a citizen’s right to free expression.
“If we can contract away criticizing our government, we’re contracting away the basis of our First Amendment rights,” she said.
How the Legislature handles complaints, and what it discloses, has become a subject of intense scrutiny in the two weeks since nearly 150 women who work at the state Capitol signed a letter claiming there is a culture of sexual harassment there.
Because the Legislature bars many of its records from disclosure, the settlement documents given to AP may not represent the full universe of payouts. The documents reveal five Senate settlements since 2012 totaling about $372,000 and two in the Assembly totaling $210,000.
The Assembly settlements both involved then-Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox and were first reported two weeks ago by the Sacramento Bee.
A former Fox employee, Nancy Finnigan, was paid $100,000 after she claimed she was fired for reporting that Fox once exposed himself to her, among other misconduct.
Another former Fox employee settled for $110,000 after claiming he asked her to perform work for his law firm. That settlement with Kristina Zahn included a clause that the parties would not disparage each other. Fox declined to comment.
Douglas Miller, a former staff member for Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill, received $89,500 this year to settle claims he was fired for complaining about a racist and sexist culture in Berryhill’s district office in Modesto.
Miller was fired after a Senate human resources investigation into a “heated” office discussion about Colin Kaepernick and whether he was a good role model, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Kaepernick is the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who gained notoriety for sitting and kneeling during the national anthem. Berryhill was not named as a defendant in the Miller case.
In Belmontes’ case, the Senate transferred her to the office of the Senate Republican Caucus and reinstated more than half a year of vacation and sick time she used between March and November 2014.
She also was paid $25,000 in compensation, $12,500 in attorney’s fees, $465 to cover a medical bill and more than $6,500 to account for the wage difference between the two jobs.
The non-disparagement clause bars Belmontes from making “any false, disparaging or derogatory statements . . . regarding the Senate or any of its members, directors, officers, agents or representatives or about the Senate’s business affairs, human resources matters, or financial condition.”
In the seven settlements reviewed by AP, Belmontes is the only person who maintained employment with the Legislature. She did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Belmontes was one of two Senate human resources department employees who settled claims in the last five years. The other was Dina Hidalgo, who ran the department.
Her case was chronicled by the Sacramento Bee when it was settled in 2014 for nearly $100,000. In return for leaving her job amid an investigation into nepotism in her department the Senate agreed to pay her $85,400, mostly to account for unused sick time to pay the law firm that represented her.
Hidalgo’s settlement included a clause that she cannot criticize the Senate in matters related to her claim.
The Senate also paid $150,000 to cover legal fees for news organizations that sued in 2015 for access to the calendars of former Democratic Sens. Leland Yee and Ron Calderon after they were indicted for felonies.
Another $3,500 was paid to settle claims with Morgan Hunter, who was described only as a Senate employee. No details on that case have been revealed.
Levinson said taxpayers should be concerned about behavior that requires their money to be spent on settlements.
But she said keeping confidential some details of claims is an important provision meant to encourage people to expose wrongdoing.
“Maybe there’s a perfect world in which you can have a little bit more information given to the public, but not so much that it prevents people from wanting to come forward,” she said.