By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, the head of the Legislative Women's Caucus and a leading figure in the state's anti-sexual harassment movement, is accused of groping a male staffer from another lawmaker's office.
Daniel Fierro told The Associated Press on Thursday that Garcia stroked his back, squeezed his buttocks and attempted to touch his crotch in a dugout after a legislative softball game in 2014.
Fierro didn't report it at the time but in January told his former boss, Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who reported it to Assembly leaders. The Assembly is now investigating Garcia.
Politico first reported Fierro's accusation.
Garcia's spokeswoman Teala Schaff said the assemblywoman learned Jan. 23 a complaint was filed but was given no details and only learned the specifics of the allegations from Politico.
"Every complaint about sexual harassment should be taken seriously and I will participate fully in any investigation that takes place," the Los Angeles-area lawmaker said in a statement thursday. "I have zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior and such behavior is inconsistent with my values."
The investigation into Garcia is one of many in statehouses nationwide following a wave of sexual misconduct allegations against men in power since an October expose of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein by the New York Times.
Fierro said he decided to tell Calderon about the incident because of Garcia's outspokenness in the #MeToo movement, which references the social media campaign used by millions to tell personal experiences with sexual harassment.
"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.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, said in a statement he is directing human resources to reach out to Garcia's staff to make sure they feel safe.
"I trust that while the investigation proceeds, Assemblymember Garcia will respond appropriately and in a way that fortifies the Legislature's effort to create a new climate," he said.
Fierro, who was 25 at the time, said he was interviewed by an outside law firm hired by the Assembly Rules Committee last Friday. Politico also reported that a lobbyist who declined to be named claimed Garcia made crude sexual comments and tried to grab his crotch at a 2017 fundraiser.
Garcia was elected in 2012 and has carved out a name as a champion of women's issues and environmental health for poor communities and chairs the Women's Caucus.
Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva, co-chair of the women's caucus, said she was "shocked and disturbed" at the allegations and she will ask the group to meet soon to discuss Garcia's fate as leader.
Garcia's photo was featured in Time Magazine's Person of the Year issue on being one of the "Silence Breakers" on sexual harassment.
"I refuse to work with (Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra) and anyone who takes part in harassment or assault," she tweeted in October after it was reported Bocanegra had been disciplined in 2009 for groping a colleague. Bocanegra later resigned after more women made public accusations.
Garcia was a fierce advocate for legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday giving legislative staff members whistleblower protections for reporting sexual misconduct or other misbehavior, speaking at a rally on the Capitol steps after its passage. She's tweeted repeatedly about the importance of sexual consent in recent days.
Fierro and the lobbyist said it appeared Garcia was inebriated at the time of the encounters.
In a November interview with AP about alcohol-fueled fundraisers and other after-work events that are a part of regular business in Sacramento, Garcia said blaming alcohol isn't an acceptable excuse for sexually inappropriate behavior. It's men who chose to misbehave, not the social events themselves, that create the problems, she said.
"I would say that most of the public realizes that our job is based on relationships, and so we are expected to go out there and socialize," she said. "I think our public also expects us to hold ourselves to a higher standard."
The Assembly committee said last week that eight allegations of sexual harassment are pending in the Assembly but did not divulge any names. Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer, didn't respond to an email from AP seeking clarifation whether Fierro's allegation is one of the eight pending. Fierro said he was contacted by Rules several days after telling Calderon about the incident for an initial interview before speaking with outside lawyers for more than an hour last week.
Fierro, of Cerritos, left the Assembly in 2016 and now runs a communications firm. Calderon, his former boss, is now the majority leader. Lerna Shirinian, Calderon's communications director, said Fierro told her about the incident right after it happened.
"He was in shock, I was in shock - but the culture was very different back then," Shirinian told Politico.
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.