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California lawmaker alleges racism may be behind suspension

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California lawmaker suspended amid a sexual misconduct investigation sued the state Senate on Thursday, seeking reinstatement and arguing he's been unfairly treated by his colleagues.

The lawsuit by Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia marked yet another twist in the California Legislature's increasingly dramatic sexual harassment scandal. Mendoza, who is Latino, argued for the first time that race is playing a role in his treatment, noting Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who is white, has not been asked to step aside despite allegations he inappropriately hugged people. Hertzberg did not comment.

Mendoza has been accused of acting inappropriately toward three young women who worked for him dating back to 2008. The allegations include inviting a young woman to his home and offering another alcohol when she was underage.

One of his former staff members, Adriana Ruelas, filed a discrimination complaint with the state alleging she was fired last year for complaining about Mendoza's behavior toward one of the women. Mendoza has denied retaliation or behaving inappropriately and said in the lawsuit that no one has accused him of "any inappropriate bodily contact, propositions or threats."

Mendoza is being investigated by an outside lawfirm hired by the Senate, but alleges in the suit he's never been told what formal complaints were filed. The Senate Rules Committee suspended him in late January — days before he was set to return from a voluntary leave of absence — because the investigation had not yet concluded.

Mendoza's lawsuit alleges the suspension was unconstitutional because it deprived him of due process and his constituents of representation in Sacramento. He says he has never been told the full scope of the investigation and is being used as a scapegoat while other lawmakers facing misconduct accusations skate by. The California Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to suspend a member, but the chamber voted last month to give the five-member Rules Committee the power to extend Mendoza's leave of absence.

"It is an unconstitutional sleight-of-hand where attacks on one senator are used to hide other more serious allegations and offenders from public view," the lawsuit alleges. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat and a former housemate of Mendoza, did not comment.

Mendoza is the only lawmaker who has been suspended since allegations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol broke open last fall. Two assemblymen voluntarily resigned, and their seats haven't been filled. Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia took a voluntary leave of absence last Friday.

Hertzberg is also facing an investigation into allegations he made at least three female colleagues uncomfortable with hugs that were too friendly. Documents released by the Legislature on Feb. 2 also show he was formally investigated in 2015 when a staff member complained he began dancing with her in his office, making her uncomfortable.

Mendoza's suit also accused colleagues of making up their minds about his case before an investigation concluded. He specifically singled out de Leon and Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino, both members of the Senate Rules Committee.

"The statements made by members of the Rules Committee to the media — and not on the Senate floor — indicate that the tribunal wielding the authority of the de facto suspension was already biased against him," the suit alleges.

Roger Bagne, one of Mendoza's constituents, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. News of Mendoza's lawsuit came just hours after a legislative panel met about revamping policies involving sexual misconduct. The public's right to know if their lawmakers have engaged in sexual misconduct was the chief topic of discussion.

"The public pays our salary, the public pays the settlements, the public has the absolute right to know what it is we're doing," said Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes of Grand Terrace.

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