Last week, accusations of sexual harassment against Santa Clarita City Councilman Dante Acosta came to light when an email exchange between his accuser and several local Republican heavyweights surfaced on sclarita.com.
That email was originally sent on June 2, just days before the primary election, but it resurfaced less than two weeks before the general election.
The email, from Republican political operative Jennifer Van Laar, described allegations of unwanted advances by Councilman Acosta over a period of 14 months dating back to January 2015.
Acosta, the self-identified “politically incorrect” conservative, is locked in a tight race against Democrat Christy Smith, a Newhall School District trustee, to replace Acosta’s friend and fellow Republican Scott Wilk in the 38th Assembly District. Wilk is hoping to fill the state Senate seat once held by the late Sharon Runner, also a Republican.
Van Laar’s email went to Wilk’s wife Vanessa, then serving as Runner’s field representative, and accused Acosta of inappropriate behavior during his time working for Congressman Knight, who was copied on the email (along with Assemblyman Wilk).
For his part, Acosta has vehemently denied all charges, insisting they are “politically motivated” and revenge for not hiring Van Laar to run his campaign. He later provided a selection of text messages which revealed nothing tawdry – only a boring “inside baseball” glimpse into local party politics.
Whether these are the only text-based communications between Acosta and his accuser has not been independently verified, and thus far Van Laar has yet to produce any evidence supporting her claims.
Until she does, we are left with a classic “She said, he said” stand-off.
Unfortunately for Acosta, his old boss Knight, and Scott Wilk, there’s an election in just a few days, so this revelation couldn’t be churning at a worse time.
If Van Laar produces proof of sexual harassment, these three men – who are already under attack for sharing political positions that Democrats say are hostile to women – will likely bleed votes of women.
Van Laar did issue a statement through Knight’s office saying that the congressman has been very supportive, but that doesn’t quell legitimate questions as to whether Knight followed federal guidelines in dealing with allegations of sexual impropriety in the workplace.
For his part, Knight’s only comment has been a remarkably brief written statement saying, in part, that Van Laar “informed me that she did not want to contact law enforcement or pursue legal action, and I respected her wishes.”
Meanwhile, Scott Wilk was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying he never spoke to Knight about the accusations and that he felt it was “inappropriate” for the congressman to even be copied by Van Laar.
Given that Acosta was a federal employee working for Knight at the time, I’m not sure why Wilk found it inappropriate, but what I found alarming was Acosta’s revelation that Knight never spoke to him about it, inferring this matter played no role in Acosta’s sudden departure from his position under Knight.
In the months since then, these men have been campaigning like the Three Amigos, which given Van Laar’s accusations seems ill-advised, if not political malpractice.
In all honesty, life experience leads me to be biased toward the woman in these circumstances.
This bias has nothing to do with Dante Acosta, this race or the broader politics in play. This is why I find Acosta’s suggestion of revenge hard to believe, because if Van Laar’s allegations are proven to be without merit, her career in politics is over.
I’ve never met Councilman Acosta, but from his brief time on the council, as well as in debates and interviews leading up to this election, I’ve found him to be woefully under-informed on important matters of policy.
I do know many people though – good people whose opinions I respect – who like the councilman a lot. For them, and for his family’s sake, I hope these charges prove false.
Christy Smith, on the other hand, has an impressive grasp of policy, which makes her far better positioned for success in Sacramento. Still, it would be wrong for Acosta to lose solely because he found himself hung out to dry with no time to mount a defense.
For the sake of voters across our region, it’s time for Ms. Van Laar to provide something irrefutable that proves her allegations. If she can, it is Mr. Acosta’s career that will be over.
If she can’t, then voters must ignore these charges when they mark their ballot.
John Zaring’s columns are called too conservative by liberals and too liberal by conservatives – thus his claim to “The Rational Center.” He lives in Castaic, is a registered Democrat and has been an SCV resident since 2000.