SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A female lobbyist claimed Monday that Assemblyman Matt Dababneh sexually assaulted her in a bathroom, an allegation the Los Angeles Democrat denied and said came "apparently for her own self-promotion."
In the latest development in a burgeoning sex scandal in California's Legislature, Pamela Lopez held a news conference at the office of her lobbying firm, K Street Consulting, to publicly name Dababneh as the perpetrator of an assault she had described to reporters and lawmakers for weeks without attaching a name.
She accused him of following her into a single-stall bathroom during a January 2016 Las Vegas hotel party for mutual friends, slamming the door and masturbating in front of her while asking him to touch her. She also outlined the alleged incident in a letter to the Assembly committee tasked with handling misconduct complaints.
"I'm choosing to have hope that that process will work," Lopez said. "I am putting this in the hands of the lawmakers who have told me they will act to protect me."
Dababneh, a former aide to U.S. Rep Brad Sherman who was elected to the Assembly in 2013, issued a statement through a public relations firm saying he looks forward clearing his name.
"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."
Dababneh, 36 and not married, has stepped aside as chairman of the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee while the allegation is under investigation.
He is the third sitting lawmaker to be investigated by the Legislature over sexual misconduct allegations since nearly 150 women at the Capitol came forward in October to allege pervasive harassment in state government. Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra of Los Angeles resigned last week while Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia denies wrongdoing. Both are Democrats.
Lopez is the only woman to make a formal claim against Dababneh as a lawmaker, but others allege inappropriate conduct while he worked for Sherman from 2005-2013, including as the district chief of staff.
Jessica Yas Barker joined Lopez at the news conference to allege frequent inappropriate comments by Dababneh when they worked together. Dababneh frequently spoke about sex and his sexual exploits and showed her condoms in his desk drawer, she said.
"It was pretty much an open secret in the San Fernando Valley that this is how Matt behaved," said Barker, who now works for the television network Ovation.
Jonathan Bash, a former president of the college Democrats at the University of California, Los Angeles, said his organization advised its women members not to intern in Sherman's office while Debabneh worked there because he was known for making sexual comments and offering alcohol to underage women. Several other former members of the organization offered similar accounts on social media.
Bash told the AP he did not formally report Dababneh's behavior because he felt it was up to the people who had worked for him to make that choice.
Sherman issued a statement saying he had no knowledge of inappropriate behavior by Dababneh and that he was "surprised and saddened" to hear that Barker felt uncomfortable while working in the office.
"I had never seen or been told of, any inappropriate behavior by Assemblyman Dababneh, or any disparagement of women," Sherman said.
He also noted Dababneh "has been in several contentious political races" and that in none "did his political opponents, some of whom had professional opposition researchers, allege anything regarding sexual harassment in their mailings, handouts, or advertisements."
No one witnessed the alleged assault in Las Vegas but Lopez's lobbying partner, Afrack Vargas, said Lopez told him about what happened when she returned from the weekend in Las Vegas.
Lopez said she never reported the incident or publicly named Dababneh because she feared retribution. She changed her mind after testifying last week before an Assembly committee tasked with fixing the chamber's policies for handling misconduct reports.
"I can't have it on my conscience that this may happen again," she said.
Ken Maxey, a friend of Dababneh's, told the Los Angeles Times he was at the same party and doesn't believe Lopez's allegations are credible given the timeline and setup of the event. Dababneh's attorney organized the interview with Maxey, the Times reported.
He said Dababneh was there for about 90 minutes and he was with him most of the time and does not remember him using the bathroom. The party was held in a room at the Las Vegas hotel where it would have been difficult for both to enter the single-stall bathroom without someone seeing, he said.
Patricia Glaser, an attorney for Dababneh, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Lopez on Friday and threatened to seek damages if she went public with her allegations. Glaser also represents disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who faces dozens of sexual abuse allegations.