Ex-staffer sues Visalia Assemblyman Devon Mathis for alleged harassment, bullying

Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia represents Assembly District 26. He's being sued by a former district director who alleges sexual harassment and bullying by Mathis and a fellow staffer.
Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia represents Assembly District 26. He's being sued by a former district director who alleges sexual harassment and bullying by Mathis and a fellow staffer. The Fresno Bee

A former staff member for Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, has filed a lawsuit against her ex-boss saying she was the victim of "severe sexual harassment and bullying" by a fellow staffer and Mathis himself.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Sacramento Superior Court, is the work of "disgruntled former employees" trying to hurt him politically just before the June 5 primary election, Mathis said.

Mathis is seeking re-election to a third term representing Assembly District 26.

Plaintiff Janie Sustaita worked for Mathis in his Visalia office from October 2016 to July 2017. She started as a field representative and was promoted to district director in January 2017.

But she was regularly called a "bitch" and worse by Justin Turner, then a legislative aide, the lawsuit states. Turner is now chief of staff for Mathis.

Reached by phone, Turner said he could not comment because he is named as a defendant, and has been told by the Assembly Rules Committee, also a defendant, not to comment.

"Mathis and Turner's sexism was overt," the lawsuit states. It alleges she was told "a man could do her job better," and that she was paid less than she should have been given her job classification.

When Sustaita asked about a pay raise, Mathis at first told her there was no money in the budget, but later said Turner received a pay raise because "he needed it more because he was getting married," and Sustaita didn't need it because she "had a rich boyfriend," the lawsuit states.

Mathis allegedly engaged in "verbal assaults" of Sustaita. But when she "stood her ground" against him in May 2017, "Mathis made a fist and moved toward her," so she left the room and ultimately put herself on leave because of the stress, the lawsuit states.

When she came back to work in July, she lasted one day, she said. She had been stripped of her duties in retaliation, she said.

Many of the allegations in the lawsuit surfaced last year when Sustaita publicly complained that her ex-boss had a drinking problem.

The lawsuit states a key part of her job was "babysitting" Mathis to keep him away from alcohol. Sustaita would throw out the drinks or water them down, the lawsuit states.

This is not the first time unseemly allegations have been leveled at Mathis.

Last year, the Tulare County Republican Party Central Committee demanded his resignation after allegations surfaced that he sexually assaulted a staff member during a night of heavy drinking. Those allegations were never proven.

Mathis said in a statement that allegations in the lawsuit fall apart under scrutiny.

"This issue has already been addressed by the Assembly Rules Committee and investigated by an independent third party, where my staff and I were cleared of any wrongdoing," he said.

Mathis faces three challengers: Republican Warren Gubler of Visalia, a lawyer and mayor of Visalia; Republican Jack Lavers of Glennville, a rancher; and Democrat Jose Sigala, a member of the Tulare City Council.

Gubler issued a statement about the allegations in the lawsuit.

"I want to be fair to Assemblyman Mathis, but if these latest accusations are true, he had no place in public office," Gubler said. "All we can say with certainty is that his office has been in chaos and that there is a pattern to the accusations against Mathis. Beyond that, the courts will have to decide."

Lavers said Mathis hasn't been proven guilty, but "these issues keep coming up in Sacramento. I am offering something different. I'm an outsider looking to do what's right."

Sigala said he had no comment.

Those who work with Mathis defended him.

Staffer Trevor Lewis, district director when Sustaita was hired, said "the entire lawsuit is factually inaccurate."

Tara James, a secretary who worked with Sustaita, said "I am inclined to believe Janie is lying about all the allegations. I've never once seen an issue with alcohol or degrading women or being physically angry against one of the staff. To me, it's all a lie."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for wrongful termination, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Mathis, Turner and the other defendants have 30 days after being served to respond.

The Assembly Rules Committee is also being sued because a high-level staffer told Sustaita to resign when she complained about Mathis' conduct, and because the committee refused to investigate, or performed an investigation but only gave lip service to Sustaita's claims, the lawsuit states.