At a Dec. 4 news conference in Sacramento, two women accused Assemblymember Matt Dababneh, whose 45th District includes the City of Calabasas, of sexual misconduct.
One of the women, 36-year-old lobbyist Pamela Lopez, said that in 2016 the Democratic legislator followed her into a Las Vegas bathroom and masturbated in front of her.
“I went to the bathroom and heard the door slam. I spun around and I was face to face with Matt Dababneh,” Lopez told reporters Monday. “He had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating. I started backing up and he moved toward me and told me to touch his genitals.”
Jessica Yas Barker, 34, said when she and Dababneh were staffers at Congressman Brad Sherman’s office in 2009-2010, Dababneh would often make inappropriate comments about her clothes and his sex life.
“He would tell me not to dress like such a lesbian, and joke about the glass ceiling women have to deal with,” Barker said. “On more than one occasion I had to listen to him regale me with stories about his sexual prowess. At events or fundraisers he would eye-up women in the room and talk about who he had slept with, who wanted to sleep with him.”
Dababneh strongly denied the accusations through a statement issued by a public relations firm.
“I affirmatively deny that this ever happened—at any time. 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,” Dababneh said.
Staffers at Dababneh’s office had no comment on whether the Assembly member was paying the PR firm through his own money or taxpayer money. Dababneh also hired a separate law firm to issue Lopez a cease and desist letter, which said Lopez is making false claims against his character and that she will be held responsible for any damages that result.
Lopez first shared her story of the assault seven weeks ago with the Los Angeles Times. At the news conference Monday, she said she did not previously identify the perpetrator because she was afraid of retaliation. She said she came forward after Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) promised he would protect women who spoke out about harassment in the workplace.
“(Cooley) encouraged women to understand that there will be a process that is focused on protecting women, protecting victims, and also that is fair and unbiased and not rigged in favor of protecting powerful men who abuse us,” Lopez said.
At 36 years old, Dababneh is one of California’s youngest legislators and was considered to be a rising star in the Democratic ranks. He is not married. A UCLA graduate, the San Fernando Valley native won a 2013 special election for California’s 45th Assembly District, which includes Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Canoga Park, Encino, Northridge, Reseda, West Hills, Winnetka, Woodland Hills, Tarzana and Bell Canyon.
The allegations against Dababneh are the latest in a wave of accusations against public figures in politics, technology and entertainment. State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) recently resigned after several women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances. State Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Los Angeles) was stripped of his leadership positions and faces investigation after being accused of misconduct by female staffers.
Lopez reportedly hasn’t taken legal action against Dababneh. The assault she described took place at bachelor party away from the work place.
The sexual harassment that Barker has alleged is workplace-related and possible grounds for a lawsuit.
Camarillo-based attorney Jon Light, who offers counsel and training programs on workplace conduct, said workplace harassment isn’t always clear-cut.
“If I told a couple of dirty jokes to a co-worker, it’s inappropriate and I should be told to stop, but it’s not illegal,” Light said. “If I do it for two or three months, then it becomes pervasive and it’s probably actionable, especially if it comes from a supervisor.
“Even if it’s not enough for legal action, it’s still harassment that should be dealt with and it could get you fired. It doesn’t have to be unlawful.”
Sexual misconduct cases can be hard to litigate; without a witness it becomes a case of the accuser’s word against the accused. Many women choose not to step forward due to fear of reprisal.
Light said in the court of public opinion, men accused of sexual assault are often considered guilty until proven innocent.
“Unfortunately because of the pervasiveness and frequency with which it’s true, there’s a lot of validity to ‘guilty until proven innocent.’
“It puts men at a tremendous disadvantage, for the few who really didn’t do anything wrong, but that’s pretty rare,” the lawyer said. “In my experience, in excess of 95 percent of the time women are not making this stuff up. And it’s almost always men harassing women.”