California lawmaker under fire for multiple cases of alleged sexual harassment

As Orange County Republicans considered a 2020 endorsement last week for Assemblyman Bill Brough, R-Dana Point, one local official made a surprising public declaration.

County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett accused Brough of making unwanted sexual advances during their time together on the Dana Point City Council. She claims the incident took place at a local restaurant during a retirement party between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. in March 2011.

Having parked closer toward the side of Olamendi’s Mexican Restaurant, Bartlett said she walked toward the back of the restaurant to the nearest exit and looked for her keys while standing inside. That’s when she claims Brough drunkenly approached her from behind, grabbed her tightly and put his arms around her shoulder.

“I couldn’t move,” Bartlett said in an interview. “I didn’t know who it was at first. It really startled me, then I realized it was Bill. I remember looking up at him and saying, ‘What are you doing? Let go of me.’ He wouldn’t let go and said something to the effect of, ‘Let’s get out of here. Let’s go get a drink and do something.’ And I just kept saying, ‘Let go of me, Bill. Let go of me.’”

With Brough standing a foot taller than her, Bartlett said she was able to wiggle, pull her body down and run to the front of the restaurant. She said there were no other witnesses present but that she asked someone attending the event to call then-city manager Doug Chotkevy, who had just left the restaurant.

When Chotkevy returned, Bartlett said she explained to him what allegedly happened to her. When reached by telephone, Chotkevy said he had no comment at this time. Bartlett said she also told former city councilman Scott Schoeffel about the incident. Schoeffel did not respond to a request for comment.

Bartlett said Brough fled the restaurant shortly thereafter. Believing the remarks were sexual in nature, Bartlett filed a complaint with the city of Dana Point later that year.

Brough denied all the allegations made against him.

“I have been on the end of many political attacks but I will not stand for personal attacks on me and my family,” he said in a statement. “I have done nothing wrong.”

Brough also cited a city memo filed a week after the alleged incident that determined the city “did not have sufficient facts or evidence to come to any conclusions” since no witnesses were present.

Bartlett’s allegation, first reported by a conservative blog called Right on Daily, prompted another woman to discuss a similar incident.

Maria Elena Banks, a Laguna Beach real estate agent who worked on campaigns for Bartlett and Brough, said Brough harassed her about five years ago before he was sworn into the state Assembly in 2014.

She said she was sitting at a bar in Dana Point when he placed his hand on her leg by the edge of her short skirt.

“I removed his hand, and I said, ‘Bill, no, you are married,’” Banks said. “He says, ‘Well, do you want to go to your house?’ And I say, ‘Are you serious?’ I just kind of said that’s not happening, so he never did another attempt on me.”

Banks said there were no witnesses present, but said she’s observed Brough behave that way with other women. “I’ve seen him sitting at a table putting his hand underneath other womens’ legs.”

Brough disputed Banks’ comments and questioned her decision to come forward.

“The incident didn’t happen,” Brough said. “It is ironic that Ms. Banks lobbied me earlier this year wanting to be my realtor key contact.”

A registered Republican, Banks said she didn’t do anything after the incident because she’s friends with Brough’s wife, Michelle, and didn’t want to upset them because they have two children. Banks said she also worried about hurting her relationship with fellow Republicans as she considers a run for local office.

A third woman submitted a complaint with the California Assembly. The details of the complaint remain closed to the public, as the Assembly Rules Committee has yet to respond to a Public Records Act request for documents about cases of alleged harassment involving Brough.

Brough provided a March 2018 letter from the committee announcing the state couldn’t determine that Brough violated state ethics policies.

Brough said his accusers are motivated by politics, highlighting a campaign flyer for Bartlett’s 2022 bid for state senate.

Bartlett and Banks disputed that characterization.

Banks said she decided to come forward in hopes her story will raise awareness about Brough’s alleged treatment of women and prevent future generations of women from being harassed by men.

“Now that other women have experienced this whole thing, and I’ve got granddaughters coming up, this has got to stop,” Banks said. “You know, I have five little granddaughters. I don’t want them to be in the same situation that I’m in. I want them to be able to stand up and talk.”

Bartlett said she was motivated by hearing other about other cases of potential harassment.

“It’s not politically motivated,” Bartlett said. “It simply isn’t. It’s something that I never even really wanted to talk about. ... But if it will effect change in the positive direction to help save other women from encountering Bill Brough’s behavior, then, to me, it’s worth it.”

The Orange County Young Democrats said in a statement Monday morning that the state party should call for him to leave office.

“Regardless of party lines, we fully support all women who have come forward and those who have not,” the group wrote in an announcement. “Bill Brough’s victims deserve the same justice, and the Republican Party — as the party of family values —should publicly and decisively call for Bill Brough to resign.”

Republican leaders are not yet ready to push for Brough to leave.

In a joint statement, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, and Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, called the allegations “serious and troubling.”

“California State Legislative Republicans will not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind,” they wrote. “These accusations are serious and troubling. Any allegation of this nature deserves a thorough, fair and transparent investigation by the Legislature’s Workplace Conduct Unit. The Legislature has worked hard to improve its process for reviewing these types of claims and we are committed to cooperating with any investigation into this matter.”

Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County GOP, said the county party will not tolerate harassment but is unaware of any ongoing investigations into Brough’s behavior.

“The Republican Party of Orange County has no tolerance for sexual misconduct,” Whitaker said in a statement. “We are not aware of any pending investigations. All claims of sexual misconduct should be reported to and investigated by law enforcement or state legislative ethics committees to allow for a fair and thorough investigation, so that victims can be heard and an accused can present a defense. If an investigation is initiated, any request for endorsement would be dependent on the results of the investigation. There is no request for endorsement pending at this time.”

This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. with comments from Assemblyman Bill Brough.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.