Fight over Garcetti’s ambassador nomination intensifies

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to India has touched off a pitched battle in the U.S. Capitol, as more senators express concern about his handling of sexual harassment allegations and Garcetti and his aides step up their defense.

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s widening probe of the alleged misconduct by Rick Jacobs, a former top Garcetti advisor, and what the mayor may have known about it is forcing senators to weigh the claims ahead of a vote on Garcetti’s nomination.

At the same time, Garcetti and White House staffers continue to reach out to senators to rally support for the nomination, which was announced by President Biden in July.

A growing number of senators, including some Democrats, have begun talking publicly about the allegations this week, creating doubts about a nominee who once appeared headed for easy confirmation. The mayor would need the support of all 50 Democrats to win confirmation without any Republican votes.

Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona signaled Wednesday that he is taking a closer look at Garcetti’s nomination. “Senator Kelly has concerns about this nomination based on the serious allegations raised by whistleblowers and is continuing to evaluate it,” a Kelly spokesperson told The Times. The news was first reported by the Arizona Republic.

Jacobs raised millions of dollars in support of Garcetti’s 2013 mayoral campaign and was a top City Hall deputy before stepping down in 2016. The focus of a city lawsuit by a LAPD officer who accused him of sexual harassment, Jacobs continued to work as a political consultant for Garcetti and helped run two nonprofits associated with the mayor. He stepped away from those roles after more men came forward to accuse him of misconduct.

Jacobs has denied harassing anyone, but conceded that he may have hugged LAPD Officer Matthew Garza, who sued the city, and told sexual jokes in front of the mayor’s security detail.

Garcetti has testified under oath and before Congress that he was unaware of any alleged misconduct by his former aide, statements that he repeated during an interview Wednesday.

“I’m not getting distracted by any of the noise,” Garcetti said, when asked about the probe by Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. “There’s no new allegations here. These are repackaged claims that have been thoroughly investigated by the White House, Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an independent investigation that interviewed dozens of people and cleared me of any wrongdoing.”

Garcetti wouldn’t say how he knows that Grassley’s investigation doesn’t include new claims. One new report has emerged: a former Garcetti aide told The Times earlier this month that it was common knowledge in the mayor’s office that Jacobs sexually harassed others.

Garcetti said Wednesday that if he had ever known “if these alleged things have happened,” he would have immediately taken action.

Garcetti also said that he is reaching out to senators to talk about his nomination, which the White House continues to support.

White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told reporters on Wednesday that Garcetti should receive a confirmation vote “expeditiously” and noted that Republicans and Democrats unanimously voted to advance his nomination out of committee.

“We’re continuing to engage with senators and working to earn bipartisan support for his nomination,” Bedingfield said.

With Grassley’s investigation, other Senate priorities and a two-week spring recess next month, it’s unlikely that Garcetti’s nomination will come up for a vote before late April at the earliest.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “It doesn’t look good for him passing.”

Even if the Senate approves him, the allegations involving his former aide “are going to be troublesome for any political opportunity that he may be looking forward to, post-ambassadorship,” Regalado predicted.

Also pushing back this week was Garcetti speechwriter Becca MacLaren, who emailed California’s two Democratic U.S. senators — Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein — on Monday to say that she did not see an instance of sexual harassment that Jacobs allegedly committed.

MacLaren’s statement, reported earlier by Politico, related to an episode in which Naomi Seligman, a former Garcetti communications director, alleged in deposition testimony that she was grabbed and forcibly kissed by Jacobs in 2016. Seligman said the incident occurred in front of eight or nine members of her staff.

“The alleged incident as described by Ms. Seligman in her testimony would have been shockingly inappropriate and extremely unprofessional,” McLaren said in her email to Padilla and Feinstein. “I would have noticed such behavior. I would not have stayed silent and sought to cover it up. And I would not have forgotten.”

Other current and former members of Garcetti’s communications staff also said in interviews they did not recall seeing any misconduct by Jacobs that day.

Rebecca Ninburg, a city fire commissioner, said in deposition testimony that her friend Seligman called her to report the unwanted kiss shortly after it happened.

Seligman, who has led the campaign to block Garcetti’s confirmation, depicted those contesting the allegations as part of a cover-up.

“A number of Mayor Garcetti’s current top staffers have lied under oath by saying they did not see the persistent abuse in his office,” Seligman said in a statement Wednesday. “Lying about this one incident is no different — it fits the overall pattern and, like the other lies, should disqualify Mayor Garcetti from any public office.”

Earlier in the week, The Times asked if Padilla would back Garcetti’s nomination. On Wednesday, the senator’s spokesperson said in a statement: “Senator Padilla supports the president’s nominee and will continue to review any new information we receive.”

While Grassley’s staff suggest they have uncovered new information, they have not divulged the nature of that evidence. There is already considerable information in the public record for senators to review, as they consider how credible Garcetti is in the Jacobs matter.

The case has been built around the lawsuit filed in 2020 by Garza, a member of Garcetti’s LAPD security detail who said he was repeatedly subjected to unwanted hugs, massages and touching by Jacobs, who was among the mayor’s closest confidants. Garza also alleged that he had to endure Jacobs’ crude sex talk.

His lawsuit against the city alleged that “Garcetti was present on approximately half of the occasions when Jacobs behaved in this way,” doing nothing to thwart his aide and sometimes even laughing at his crude comments. The mayor had denied the allegations.

Grassley’s team is also looking at allegations that Jacobs made racist comments in front of the mayor. Jacobs said in his deposition that he had called his aide “Chinaman” when he worked at City Hall. Jacobs said that he had apologized to his aide and the two remained friends.

Garcetti, in his own deposition, said he would have taken action if he heard Jacobs using the phrase “Chinaman.”

Times staff writer Erin B. Logan, in Washington, contributed to this report.

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