A California lawmaker said Wednesday she will introduce legislation to ban secret settlements in sexual harassment cases, taking aim at a practice that for decades prevented the surfacing of harassment and sexual assault allegations against disgraced studio mogul Harvey Weinstein.
State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, told Variety she will introduce legislation early next year that prohibits the type of settlements Weinstein paid women that required them to sign nondisclosure agreements.
“We really need to remove the curtain of secrecy about what’s happening,” Levya said in an interview. “Ultimately that’s what hurts victims and enables perpetrators to continue to do this and remain hidden.”
The first-term state senator’s effort is in response to investigative reports published by The New York Times and the New Yorker outlining how Weinstein paid out at least eight settlements to women he had harassed or assaulted. Similarly, ousted Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, settled allegations of sexual misconduct with five women for $13 million, according to a New York Times investigation. The agreements required confidentiality by the women who received the payouts. Fox’s Roger Ailes also hid his sexual misconduct using such agreements.
Because of the secret settlements, perpetrators are largely free to commit the same offenses again and again, Levya said. Her legislation would require such settlements to be made public.
Across the country, women and allies are calling for cultural and policy changes that they hope will empower more victims of sexual harassment and assault to report such incidents. In Hollywood, studio executives and others have begun forming task forces to recommend policy changes and other safeguards. Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm president, called for the creation of a commission to combat the problem, and the Producers Guild of America has formed its own task force to research and propose solutions.
Levya, a first-term senator, succeeded last year in eliminating the statute of limitations on rape. The law applies to crimes committed after January 1, 2017. Police in London and New York have begun investigation allegations against Weinstein, but no such inquiries have started in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, the California law, she said, “might actually be able to help some of these survivors,” she said.
Levya has not yet drafted language for the bill, but said she expects it will receive broad support at the Capitol, where a debate over sexual harassment is also raging, this one among lawmakers themselves.
Female California legislators, staff and lobbyists this week drew attention to the issue of sexual harassment at the Legislature. More than 140 women signed on to a letter that shed light on a “pervasive” culture that they said degraded and demeaned women. Some reported being groped, while others reported sexual innuendos and inappropriate comments.
The California Senate is reportedly examining its procedures related to sexual harassment complaints. Activists say investigation of such complaints should be conducted by an independent body.
“I hope that we are finally at a point in our society to say, enough is enough,” Levya said. “We need to make sure that women understand we are going to have each other’s back.”