When the #MeToo movement washed across the country two years ago, revealing a rash of sexual misconduct by powerful men, California political leaders acknowledged the problem had festered at the state Capitol, too.
“We must do better,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said at the start of 2018, after a handful of fellow lawmakers were accused of groping employees, propositioning interns and assaulting a lobbyist.
“On this issue, we must become what California is on so many other issues — an example of how to go forward.”
Yet when news broke this summer that Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco had a nearly four-year sexual relationship with a domestic worker who advocated for controversial labor legislation at the Capitol, Rendon’s reaction was very different. He chalked it up to Ting making a “mistake in violating his marriage vows” and, in a tweet, dismissed the reports as a political attack.
Whether Ting’s conduct amounts to what he called “a personal failure” or a breach of professional ethics is being debated among Democratic activists. Some say his progressive stances — championing clean energy and worker rights — matter more than a messy personal life. Others say the allegations — which also involve meeting his accuser on a website where men pay for dates, by sending her a picture of a different assemblymember — point to a disturbing abuse of power.
The woman at the center of the story, Carmel Foster, has accused Ting of lying about his identity and using her for sex while crafting legislation that was inspired by her travails as a domestic worker. Ting — who holds a powerful position as chair of the Assembly budget committee and is running for re-election to his 5th term in a heavily Democratic district — declined to be interviewed for this article. He said in a statement that he was unfaithful to his wife, but his policy decisions were not “driven by any personal consideration.”
The allegations by Foster, a South African immigrant who has used gig-based websites to find work as a house cleaner and caregiver, come amid a heated political battle over a law she advocated for, which makes it harder for employers to treat their workers as independent contractors. Democrats argued they were sticking up for mistreated workers when they passed Assembly Bill 5 last year, and now gig companies Uber and Lyft are pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to exempt themselves from it on the November ballot.
The Legislature and the California Democratic Party both have new procedures for examining misconduct claims that were created during the #MeToo movement. They’ve been used to hold politicians accountable for everything from raunchy office banter to unwelcome gropes and exposures.
But it’s not clear whether they’ll be used to vet Foster’s accusations. More than a month after Foster went public with her story, legislative officials won’t say if the matter is being investigated.
“We fought for the systems. I hope they are being engaged with discretion and care for everybody involved,” said Christine Pelosi, who leads the women’s caucus for the California Democratic Party and pushed the Legislature to create a process for investigating misconduct claims in 2018.
“There should be an investigation and a resolution one way or another, because otherwise the message it sends is that if you have powerful friends and people are otherwise distracted (by the pandemic), you can get away with things that are not appropriate. And if, in fact, it was all a personal matter, then that should be brought to light too, in fairness to him.”
Ting’s defenders say Foster’s story does not constitute workplace harassment and is best left to be resolved privately. Ting’s critics, however, believe that the power imbalance in a relationship between an elected official and a domestic worker that began as a commercial transaction — along with her policy advocacy at the Capitol — point to a political culture that the Legislature pledged to change at the peak of #MeToo.
“I feel that mine is a #MeToo,” Foster told CalMatters. “It should qualify for that because I was lobbying. I was going inside the Capitol and lobbying.”
Assembly Speaker Rendon declined to be interviewed for this article. The Legislature has referred complaints about Ting to the new workplace conduct unit that was formed after the #MeToo reckoning, said Assembly administrator Debra Gravert. The unit is tasked with assessing complaints by or against legislative employees and elected lawmakers, and a member of an affiliated panel determines whether to investigate.
The head of the unit would not say if it has opened an investigation into Foster’s complaint. Nor would the lawyer for the Assembly’s ethics committee, which receives complaints alleging potential violations of California’s political ethics law, such as conflicts of interest. Foster and a half dozen opponents of the AB 5 labor law signed a letter asking the ethics committee to investigate, citing “the imbalance of power that resulted in her exploitation and abuses.”
Gravert said the Legislature’s rules forbid acknowledging if such investigations have been launched “to protect the rights of complainants as well as the accused.”
“I feel that mine is a #MeToo. It should qualify for that because I was lobbying. I was going inside the Capitol and lobbying.”
— Carmel Foster
Another request to investigate Ting was sent to the California Democratic Party by a former delegate, who shared her complaint with CalMatters. But party chairman Rusty Hicks said that as far as he knows, an investigation has not begun. The party’s new process for investigating claims of misconduct was formed after several members accused former chair Eric Bauman of abuse.
Ting, in a statement to CalMatters, said: “These agencies have the mission of investigating workplace conduct, not private failures.”
He acknowledged having an extramarital affair last month after Foster shared her story on a website that features conservative commentary. Foster said she met Ting in 2016 when, struggling in the aftermath of a divorce, she signed up on a website called What’s Your Price. The site advertises itself as a forum for men to pay women for dates.
Foster agreed to go out with Ting for $30, she said. In aliased emails with each other before meeting, which Foster shared with CalMatters, Ting sent her a photo that he claimed was of himself. In fact, it was a picture of one of his colleagues, Republican Assemblymember Phillip Chen.
Chen did not respond to several requests for comment, and Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron declined to answer questions about the use of Chen’s photo.
Ting and Foster met for lunch in May 2016 at a Sacramento restaurant, she said, and continued dating for months before she found out he was an elected official. Meanwhile, Foster was barely scraping by on house cleaning jobs she found on apps like Handy, she said, and was unable to hold down stable housing.
“I was homeless. He followed me to every motel,” Foster said.
Eventually Foster got a job taking care of an elderly man, she said, and became involved with a group that advocates for domestic workers. Ting wrote legislation the group pushed for: In 2018, he carried a bill to train domestic workers and their employers on industry labor standards, because, he argued in a bill analysis, “many workers remain unaware of their labor rights and employers remain unaware of their obligations.”
The next year, the Legislature considered a labor-backed bill known as AB 5, which was aimed at improving conditions for workers in the growing gig economy. Foster testified in favor of the bill at an April 2019 hearing. She described herself as a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and told lawmakers how difficult it was to get by as a gig worker.
“We are still indeed extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” Foster said at the hearing.
The bill spurred a massive political brawl between labor unions and gig companies, but ultimately passed with overwhelming support from Democrats, including Ting.
Foster has since changed her tune on AB 5 and is now campaigning to repeal part of it through Proposition 22 on the November ballot. She said she feels used by labor unions that asked her to testify for the bill, as well as by Ting.
“He used me for his own gain,” Foster said.
“Taking everything we talked about when we’re laying down in bed and then turning around and making it part of his job description, it’s unacceptable.”
Ting denied the allegation that his personal life influenced the bills he carried or the votes he cast as a lawmaker. And his vote in favor of the gig worker bill is completely consistent with his politics as a progressive labor-friendly Democrat.
“I have fought for the rights of working people my entire adult life,” Ting said in a statement.
California’s political ethics law does not require lawmakers to disclose personal relationships with advocates for legislation they vote on. But legislators should do it anyway, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
“If you are in an intimate relationship with somebody who wants to sway your vote, this is something the public would want to know about,” she said.
“It raises the question — did he vote on something to make his paramour happy, or because it’s something that’s good for his constituents?”
On a Facebook group for Democratic party delegates, many activists said the allegations amount to a personal issue for Ting and his family to resolve that does not merit public scrutiny.
“Folks, the issue related to AB 5 is different than the affair. The connection is loose at most,” wrote Jim Araby, a campaign director for the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
“Extramarital affairs are separate from policy and let’s not combine the two,” wrote Araby, who told CalMatters this week he stands by his social media comments last month.
“The allegation that my bills or votes were ever driven by any personal consideration is false. I have fought for the rights of working people my entire adult life.”
— Assemblymember Phil Ting
But former delegate Sabrina Brennan is pushing for the California Democratic Party to investigate Ting.
She’s alarmed by the allegation that he was using a website that’s part of a network implicated in cases of human trafficking. What’s Your Price, the site where Foster said she met Ting, markets itself to “generous” men who want to pay for dates with “attractive” women. It’s one of several sites that purport to be for “sugar dating” — which typically involves older men paying younger women for companionship and affection.
What’s Your Price and at least two more online dating sites share a common owner, according to the founder’s personal website. He told the New York Times that his Seeking Arrangement dating platform is not a vehicle for prostitution.
But it has been used by men charged with serious crimes, according to trafficking experts, government officials and media reports. In 2017, a 53-year-old Virginia man pleaded guilty in federal court to sexual exploitation of children after having sex with a 14-year-old girl he met on one of the sites, a U.S. Department of Justice news release states. That same year, a Georgia man was charged with trafficking and false imprisonment after police found him holding several women he’d met on the site in his home, allegedly against their will, CNN reported. Public records show he was scheduled for trial this year.
“I’m concerned that men with money and power normalize the use of trafficking websites,” Brennan wrote in a message to CalMatters. “I’d like some integrity and respect for women in my elected reps.”
The What’s Your Price site says “prostitution is strictly forbidden” and “escorts are not welcome.”
But an anti-trafficking advocate said it’s part of a network of sites used by traffickers who advertise the same girls and women on many different platforms.
“As a group, those sites cross-promote and advertise on the same sites where prostitituion is clearly indicated as the goal,” said Robert Beiser, strategic initiatives director for Polaris, an anti-trafficking advocacy group.
“What we know from survivors is that traffickers don’t distinguish where they want their trafficking victims to be promoted, they just see multiple avenues for trafficking their victims.”
Brennan is also troubled by the allegation that Ting presented himself online as a different legislator.
“There is something really wrong with that whole picture if that’s what happened,” she said. “Of course it needs to be investigated.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.