A Sacramento lobbyist said Monday that Assemblyman Matt Dababneh cornered her in a hotel bathroom in Las Vegas last year and masturbated in front of her.
The explosive allegation, which comes more than six weeks after lobbyist Pamela Lopez first publicly discussed the incident without naming the perpetrator, prompted an Assembly investigation and a sharp rebuke from Dababneh, a Los Angeles Democrat.
“This is a moment. This is a moment of collective action,” Lopez said in a press conference at her Q Street office. “I find strength in that collective action, and I find strength in their numbers. I want to stand with them and show that there is a path to stepping forward and seeking justice.”
Dababneh denied the allegation in a statement released by The Rose Group, a Santa Monica public relations firm.
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“I affirmatively deny that this event ever happened – at any time,” he said. “I am saddened by this lobbyist’s effort to create this falsehood and make these inflammatory statements, apparently for her own self-promotion and without regard to the reputation of others. I look forward to clearing my name.”
At an Assembly hearing on sexual harassment prevention last week, Lopez, 35, said she was afraid that going public could hurt her ability to make a living. She is a partner in K Street Consulting, a public affairs and governmental relations company.
Dababneh, 36, represents an Assembly district encompassing part of the San Fernando Valley, where he was elected in a November 2013 special election. He chairs the influential Banking and Finance Committee, and often carries legislation on animal welfare issues.
But Lopez said she changed her mind after listening to Assembly Rules Committee chairman Ken Cooley at the hearing last week, where he urged women to report sexual harassment and promised to put victims first and protect their safety.
Lopez told The Bee she submitted a letter detailing the Dababneh incident to the Assembly Rules Committee on Monday morning, as a “test case.”
“I don’t have faith, necessarily, but I have hope that there will be some serious reforms in the process and that it will support me,” she said. “I’m still really scared.”
She said that Dababneh, through his attorney, “has tried to silence me by threatening to sue me for defamation if I persisted in reporting this assault.”
Cooley said in a statement that the Assembly will hire an outside investigator to handle the complaint.
“Since the allegation is criminal in nature, Ms. Lopez is encouraged to contact law enforcement as well,” he said.
A second woman who formerly worked in U.S Rep. Brad Sherman’s district office in the San Fernando Valley, where Dababneh was the district director, joined Lopez at the press conference, saying she was also harassed by Dababneh.
Jessica Yas Barker said that during her year-and-a-half in the office, Dababneh repeatedly commented on her looks and appearance, including telling her not to dress like “such a lesbian,” and often regaled her with stories of his sexual experiences. She said he brought her into his office and showed her condoms in his desk, then joked about it.
Barker said she finally quit because of the treatment, losing a job that would have allowed her to get her student loans forgiven. While she has remained in politics, the experience, one of Barker’s first professional opportunities out of college, also pushed her away from her original interest in working on federal policy.
“Who knows what my career would look like today had I been able to stay in a congressional office with a boss who was respectful and encouraging?” she said.
Lopez and Baker both said they heard from other women who experienced sexual harassment from Dababneh, but were not ready to come forward about it.
“I can’t have it on my conscience that this may happen again,” Lopez said. “I’ve heard from enough women that I’m fearful and worried that this will happen again.”
Jonathan Bash, a former president of Bruin Democrats at UCLA, said he and other leaders of the club told a handful of young women not to intern with Sherman’s office after hearing stories about Dababneh’s behavior.
“I wish this came out earlier,” said Bash, who led the club in 2011. “It’s one of the things that’s been nagging in the back of my head.”
They advised against taking jobs in the office from 2010 until at least 2013 when Bash graduated, he said. Dababneh attended UCLA and was a member of the Bruins Democrats.
“We did have a few interns and few staffers who were in our club or who recently graduated who had come across problems working with him,” Bash said. “If a female member and generally any member of our club was mentioning that they were looking to intern there, we would say that we heard of negative experiences from other interns, there might be a sexual harassment issue and we would advise you not to intern in that office.”
Lopez said her encounter with Dababneh occurred at a suite at the Skylofts hotel at the MGM Grand resort in Las Vegas in January 2016, during a gathering of mutual friends celebrating an approaching wedding. Many of those in attendance were political professionals.
“I had no reason to think I was unsafe,” she said. “I went to the restroom, and I felt a body, a large body, rush up behind me, use the weight of their body to push me into the restroom.”
Lopez said she spun around and found herself face to face with Dababneh. She said she did not know him personally and had only spoken a few sentences to him prior to the event.
“He had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating,” Lopez said. “I started backing up, and he moved toward me while he was masturbating, and in explicit terms, told me to touch his genitals while he was masturbating.”
She said she remembers thinking that she needed to make it clear that she was not participating: “I said several times, ‘No, I will not touch you. No, I will not touch you.’ ”
In an interview with The Bee, Lopez said Dababneh ejaculated into the toilet as she was pressed up against the wall. When it was over, she said, he seemed to be in disbelief, like he knew he had made a mistake.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she recalled him saying.
Lopez said Dababneh leaned over her and demanded that she not tell anybody what happened. She said she “raised my voice a little” for the first time and told him, “Don’t you tell anybody about it.”
Then he walked out of the bathroom, Lopez said, and she “waited a clip” before leaving, so as not to make it seem as though they had been in there together.
Lopez said Dababneh seemed sober during the confrontation.
“Even from the moment it happened, it was so smooth, it seemed like he had done it before,” she said.
She said she found solace that night with other people on the edges of the party: “I made a point in my own mind of composing my face so I didn’t look upset.”
Lopez also released a letter warning her against holding the press conference, dated Friday, from Patricia L. Glaser, a lawyer representing Dababneh.
Glaser, a partner at Glaser Weil, is helping coordinate Havery Weinstein’s civil litigation against The Weinstein Co., whose board fired the Hollywood mogul after several women made sexual harassment complaints against him.
“This letter is written to give you formal notice that Mr. Dababneh unequivocally denies the occurrence of the incident of sexual harassment that you allege, or any other act of sexual harassment by him against you, at any time,” it states. “If you proceed with your press conference or any other public statement and make any false and defamatory allegation against Mr. Dababneh, you will be held fully accountable in damages.”
A letter in response, dated Monday, from Leslie F. Levy, a lawyer representing Lopez, said such a lawsuit would result in a deeper investigation of Dababneh to learn more about his reputation.
“While we understand that many lawmakers and others who work in the Capitol might not volunteer their opinions regarding your client, we are confident that they would testify truthfully under oath if questioned about this subject,” the letter states.
Lopez first spoke about the incident in October, when she joined nearly 150 women in California politics who published an open letter decrying a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment in their industry. The allegation caused an immediate stir at the Capitol, with rampant speculation about the identity of the perpetrator and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon promising to seek the lawmaker’s resignation or expulsion if he determined it was a member of his chamber.
In a statement Monday, Rendon reiterated, “While it is not my place to prejudge any investigation, as I stated when Ms. Lopez first shared her story, if it is found that Assemblymember Dababneh committed this assault I will ask for his immediate resignation and move for his expulsion if he refuses to resign.
“Assemblymember Dababneh is temporarily stepping down as chair of the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee while the investigation proceeds,” he added. “While the investigation moves forward, I am also asking Assembly Human Resources to reach out to Assemblymember Dababneh’s staff to ensure they feel safe in their work environment.”
In early media reports, the situation was described as taking place at a Sacramento bar.
Lopez said Monday that she initially wanted to keep some ambiguity about the details of the incident, because she was not comfortable with it becoming public.
“I had not thought all the way through whether or not I wanted to name my perpetrator, and whether or not I would be asked what city the event occurred in,” she said. “I realized that if I were to disclose the specific city, it would be immediate and easy to identify my perpetrator, so I went along with the assumption that it occurred in Sacramento.”
Two other sitting lawmakers have already been the subject of sexual harassment or assault complaints. Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Los Angeles Democrat, resigned last week amid mounting allegations that he groped or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward at least seven women, including some of his subordinates, while working as a chief of staff and serving in the Legislature. The Senate is investigating complaints that Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, behaved inappropriately toward a fellow who worked in his office, including that he invited her to his home to review her résumé.