Sex Predator or #MeToo Prey?
Life was good for Matthew Dababneh as autumn of 2017 moved toward winter. A former congressional aide, the moderate Democrat had won an open seat in the California State Assembly in a 2013 special election. Dababneh easily won reelection to the Assembly in 2014 and again in 2016. At age 36, as one of the legislature’s youngest members, he was chairman of the powerful Banking and Finance Committee, and was rising rapidly in California’s Democratic Party politics.
Then, with breathtaking suddenness, his reputation and political career were devastated. In an Oct. 17, 2017 article in the New York Times, a lobbyist named Pamela Lopez was quoted accusing an unnamed California lawmaker of pushing into a bathroom behind her in a Sacramento bar, locking the door, “expos[ing] himself and . . . masturbating,” moving toward her and asking her to touch his genitals.
This was 12 days after an exposé of Harvey Weinstein had launched the #MeToo movement. It was just hours after the Los Angeles Times had published a letter denouncing “pervasive” sexual misconduct in California’s capital that was signed by 140 legislators, senior aides, lobbyists, and other women, including Lopez.
She instantly became the most famous face of the #MeToo movement in California politics -- with the Los Angeles Times discussing her allegations 10 times in the next two months. Lopez called a press conference on December 4, 2017 to accuse Dababneh of being the alleged perpetrator.
Lopez, then 35 years old, claimed in that news conference – and in a letter to the Assembly the same day -- that almost two years before, on Jan. 16, 2016, Dababneh had done what she had previously alleged to the Times. (She did not file a police report in 2016.) At the news conference, however, she placed the incident in a Las Vegas hotel suite during a pre-wedding party, not a Sacramento bar. A Lopez acquaintance, Jessica Yas Barker, appeared at the news conference and added a claim of inappropriate sex talk by Dababneh more than five years earlier.
Without hearing evidence other than the Lopez accusation and Dababneh’s forceful denial, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon – within hours of the Lopez press conference -- stripped Dababneh of his committee chairmanship and assignments, banned him from his offices and from contacting his staff, and called for his expulsion if the investigation substantiated the Lopez accusation. Democratic leaders’ mind-set, Dababneh suggests, was that “you’re either going to get on the train or get run over by it.”
When asked for comment, Rendon’s spokesman, Kevin Liao, said that “the Assembly categorically denies Dababneh's characterization” but did not specifically deny any fact.
Dababneh resigned his office four days after the Lopez press conference, saying that his party’s leaders had made it impossible to do his job. Within a few days after that, Carrie McFadden, a friend of Barker’s, added another claim of inappropriate sex talk by Dababneh years before. A woman named Nancy Miret told the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles police that Dababneh pressured her to have sex when they were dating in 2013, before he broke up with her. The authorities declined to pursue her claim.
The four women were in touch with one another – and some were promoted to the media by a political enemy of Dababneh – well before the Lopez press conference, Dababneh told me. He forcefully denied all the accusations and said he had never been publicly accused of any kind of sexual misconduct previously in a 14-year political career, including five years as an assemblyman, during which he employed more than 15 women in positions including chief of staff, legislative director, and press secretary.
The Lopez claim became a rallying cry for a then-new #MeToo movement that was already roiling California’s political world. At least eight other lawmakers were also accused of misconduct and two others resigned. Dababneh was immediately denounced by activists as a sexual predator – indeed, a sex criminal. Indecent exposure and public masturbation are crimes under the laws of California and most other states.
Dababneh is one of many men accused of sexual misconduct who have been presumed guilty, without meaningful due process, by their employers (or campuses), peers, the media, and the public. Their lives and professional prospects, including Dababneh’s, are typically devastated. Some become depressed, even suicidal. Some, however, are fighting back in any way they can. Hundreds of accused college students have sued their campuses for ruling against and often expelling them in proceedings that, they claim, lack due process. And a majority of those have won at least preliminary rulings.
But very few accused men sue their accusers, in part to avoid public trials and minimize publicity. That’s what makes Dababneh’s case unusual. Even those who have strong evidence of innocence typically sue only their campuses or employers. It is harder to win a suit against an accuser and most could not pay large damage awards.
In Dababneh’s case, he says that he become convinced that a public trial in a court of law governed by due process became his only hope of clearing his name. He had been ruined by publicity about the Lopez accusation and stunned by the unfavorable outcome of a highly secretive and (in his view) grossly unfair, guilt-presuming investigation by a private Sacramento lawyer hired by the State Assembly amid the highly charged #MeToo atmosphere.
So in August 2018, he filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court against Lopez for defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Dababneh has also sued the Assembly and its Rules Committee. Even if he wins one or both cases, he has little chance of collecting a damage award large enough to replenish the savings that he is spending on legal fees; Lopez does not appear to have much money and the Assembly is immune from monetary liability.
“I’m fighting for my name and for my ability to restart my life without this Scarlet Letter, which isn’t deserved,” Dababneh told me. “I wasn’t given a fair review of the evidence by the Assembly or the media and none of my accusers went to court against me.” He hopes that a jury verdict finding Lopez to be a false accuser will clear his name. But a trial of his case against her seems unlikely until late 2021, in part because of what Dababneh calls her delaying tactics. If he cannot convince a jury that Lopez is lying, he will have squandered his savings and his home in vain.
But moving the case from the court of public opinion to an actual court of law, he said, will allow him to present a defense for the first time.
Lopez has received extensive media coverage portraying her as a hero. Her legal fees are being paid by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Dababneh has been unable to find a job. Most of his savings have gone to legal expenses. He is hoping to sell his Woodland HIlls home, listed at $1.42 million, for enough to pay his bills after his mortgage payoff, realtor’s commission, and taxes. He has been hit with hundreds of threats, mostly on social media and by email, including death threats. He told me that many people presume him guilty and shun him, and he has experienced “depression, humiliation, anguish and embarrassment.” He added that “people who have told me privately that they believe in my innocence, or who were at the party and know first-hand that this did not happen, have been unwilling to defend me publicly for fear of retaliation or political backlash.”
More than six months after the Lopez press conference, Dababneh received a June 25, 2018 public letter from Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer of the Assembly’s Rules Committee, finding he had violated the legislature’s policy against “sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The letter disclosed only that Deborah Maddux, a Sacramento lawyer who had been hired as an outside investigator, interviewed Dababneh and more than 50 other people and “determined this allegation was substantiated, that is, it is more likely than not that the alleged facts did occur.” Dababneh told me that his research shows that Maddux interviewed no more than 12 of the people at the party (in addition to Lopez and him) and most supported his claim of innocence.
Gravert’s letter to Dababneh added that “you are not entitled to a copy” of Maddux’s “Investigation Report” because it “is subject to the attorney-client privilege.” Gravert has not responded to my requests for comment. Maddux declined to discuss the matter with me.
Maddux and the Assembly never told Dababneh or the public what evidence she considered behind closed doors, which witnesses she interviewed, or whether she put Lopez or any other accuser through a serious cross-examination. According to Dababneh, the four eyewitnesses mentioned below and several others told his counsel that they had provided Maddux with evidence supporting his version of events.
Maddux did not contact any of the more than 14 character witnesses whose contact information Dababneh provided to her, he told me. Among those who volunteered to be character witnesses were Mike and Kitty Dukakis. The former Massachusetts governor wrote a letter to Maddux praising Dababneh highly based on working with him since 2000, and stating: “I find it inconceivable that Matt would engage in any of the conduct that he is now accused of doing.”
Dababneh and his lawyers argued in an administrative appeal that they were aware of no significant evidence corroborating the Lopez accusation and thus that there was none, because Maddux had repeatedly assured them that she had no significant evidence supporting Lopez of which they were not aware. They added that Maddux had ignored much exculpatory evidence and showed no fact findings at all to Dababneh; and that, in any event, an alleged sexual assault at a private, pre-wedding party in a hotel suite hundreds of miles from Sacramento could not be sexual harassment “in the workplace.”
In his second lawsuit, this one against the State Assembly and its Rules Committee, Dababneh repeated the claims in his administrative appeal and stressed that the defendants violated his due-process rights by not giving him an opportunity to respond to whatever evidence Maddux had held against him. Dababneh won judicial rulings rejecting the efforts of Lopez and the Assembly to have judges dismiss the lawsuits without trials.
The only evidence that Lopez has publicly cited as corroborating her accusation is that she mentioned it to her then-fiance and now-husband, Juan Urbano, the day after the alleged assault; her business partner Afrack Vargas a few days later; and her friend Deanna Johnston several weeks later. She has not named a single witness who saw her or Dababneh enter a bathroom at the Las Vegas party, which was attended by 60 or more politicians and others from the Sacramento and Los Angeles areas. Lopez chose not to seek criminal prosecution, which would have exposed her to cross-examination and allowed Dababneh to present his evidence in open court.
The weekend-long pre-wedding party, which some called a bachelor party, was held in a suite at SkyLofts, part of the MGM Grand resort in Las Vegas. It was thrown by a friend in honor of Alex De Ocampo, a longtime California political operative who married his gay partner about two months later. De Ocampo was friends of both Dababneh and Lopez.
Dababneh drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 with two friends, Aubrey Farkas and Ken Maxey, to attend that evening’s celebration. He says that he arrived with Farkas and Maxey around 8:30 p.m. and remained close to them and other friends until the three left the suite at 10:30 or 11. The party ended shortly thereafter, because it was ruined by a group of noisy, drunken kickball players who crashed it.
At one point during the party, Dababneh said, Lopez came up to a group including him and said, “Hi, Matt”; he responded, “Nice to meet you”; and then she said something like, “I am surprised you don’t remember me. Isn’t it your job to know important lobbyists?” He said he recalls no other contact with her.
Is Dababneh innocent? His lawyers have raised in court papers and will press at trial – if he can get a trial -- points including the following:
Lopez changed the location of the alleged crime between October 2017 and her Dec. 4, 2017 press conference. She told the New York Times in October that she had been pushed and followed by an unnamed legislator into a bathroom in a Sacramento bar. But there is no evidence that Dababneh and Lopez had ever been in a Sacramento bar at the same time. In her press conference, she said it had been in the Las Vegas hotel suite. Lopez has said that she originally gave the location as Sacramento to prevent journalists from fingering Dababneh as the perpetrator. But she could have simply said the bathroom was in a place she was not prepared to identify.
Farkas told the Los Angeles Times, in a conversation including Dababneh lawyer Stephen Kaufman, that Dababneh was either with her or she could see him from the moment they entered the Las Vegas party together until the moment they left and that he never entered a bathroom at all.
Maxey has said he was with Dababneh and Farkas almost the entire time and never saw him head for a bathroom. “I don’t see how it’s possible,” Maxey said of the Lopez accusation to the Los Angeles Times, citing the open layout of the hotel suite.
A third eyewitness, Adam Englander, the main host of the party, swore in a declaration filed in the Dababneh lawsuit against Lopez: “To the best of my recollection, there was a line to use the downstairs bathroom the entire evening, and there were substantial numbers of people in front of the short hallway leading to that bathroom. If a man were to push a woman into that bathroom and follow her in, it is likely they would have been seen by multiple people standing there.”
A fourth eyewitness, who was also at the party the entire time Dababneh was, made the same point, telling me it would have been impossible for Dababneh to push Lopez and follow her into a bathroom without being seen. This eyewitness explained that the only bathroom accessible to party-goers on the first level of the two-level suite was small and single-use and had crowds of people waiting noisily at the door the entire time. The same eyewitness added that it would also have been impossible for Lopez, Dababneh or anyone else to go up the stairs (which were blocked by one or more chairs) unseen by this witness to get to the two bathrooms on the second level. They were off limits to party-goers and reachable only through the bedrooms of the people staying in them. This witness would not speak for attribution because, the witness (and others) told me, in the #MeToo era, anyone who said anything suggesting doubt that Lopez was telling the truth would be savaged and ostracized both socially and politically.
Dababneh, who says he does not drink alcohol, has asserted in court papers that Lopez “had several alcoholic beverages” during the party and that he believes she had used illegal drugs. He and two other eyewitnesses told me she seemed intoxicated. She has sworn: “I recall having drinks at the party, but I was not drunk.”
Lopez has not identified anyone at the party who said she appeared to be upset at any time. Afterward, she sent the primary host a thank-you note saying what a good time she had.
Dababneh has said in court papers that two months later Lopez introduced him to Urbano at the De Ocampo wedding, “and we had a friendly exchange.” In a curiously worded reply, Lopez replied in her sworn statement that “I did not see Dababneh at the wedding”; that “I do not recall if we had any exchange”; that “I did not introduce Dababneh to my ‘husband,’ as he says in his declaration, because I was not married”; and that “I certainly did not introduce him to ‘Juan Urbano,’ as he says in his declaration, because my now-husband, then boyfriend goes by Johnny in social settings.” She pointedly did not deny introducing Dababneh to Urbano.
A photo that Dababneh filed in court of a group of 23 people celebrating at the De Ocampo wedding two months after the alleged attack shows a smiling Lopez standing right in front of Dababneh, less than a foot away. But at her press conference almost two years later, she said it was “scary” to see Mr. Dababneh “walk through the halls of the Capitol.”
I sent Pamela Lopez and her lawyers an email detailing this evidence and requesting comment. The response, from lawyer Hilary Hammell, said that “we are going to have to decline to speak with you about this matter.”
It’s possible that Dababneh’s eyewitnesses are mistaken. But neither his accusers, nor Speaker Rendon, nor investigator Maddux, nor Gravert were willing to discuss the facts and evidence with me at all.
What motive might Lopez have had to fabricate a phony allegation against Dababneh? He told me his best guess was that she may have seen her sensational claim against an originally unidentified perpetrator as a risk-free way to win fame as a #MeToo survivor at a time when claiming victimhood had become a route to glory.
And, indeed, the previously obscure Lopez became a minor celebrity in the California political world via dozens of news articles. A Jan. 15, 2018 profile in San Francisco Magazine, for example, was headlined: “Lobbyist Pamela Lopez Doesn’t Think She’s a Hero for Stepping Forward About Sexual Assault. She’s Wrong.” In an interview with the Riverside County Press-Enterprise, Lopez said that “I hope my clients see that I am one tough lady and I’m not to be messed with. ... And that’s a good quality to have in a lobbyist.”
Dababneh believes that after the “very liberal” Lopez came under great pressure to name the alleged perpetrator, she was encouraged to accuse Dababneh by people who wanted to drive him out of the Assembly because “the far left disliked me based on my practical and moderate voting record.” Among his political critics, he said, were accusers Jessica Barker and Carrie McFadden and a Democratic campaign consultant and opposition research specialist named Michael Trujillo, with whom the accusers became connected through Barker.
In a series of text messages on Oct. 27, 2017 -- more than a month before Lopez publicly accused Dababneh – Trujillo predicted Dababneh’s downfall, said he hated him, and added that “I have already recruited a female to run in his seat.” The Trujillo texts also boasted of helping Dababneh’s accusers get their claims trumpeted in the Los Angeles Times and other media. The person to whom he sent the texts gave them to Dababneh. Trujillo told me that the texts were probably his but said he had no personal vendetta against Dababneh.
Both Barker and McFadden had sought Dababneh out as a political ally for years after his alleged sex talk in the period 2009-2012, which neither woman mentioned publicly until December 2017. By then, Dababneh points out, they had become critics of his political positions.
I asked accusers Barker, McFadden, and Miret for comment. Barker declined. The others did not respond.
Is Matthew Dababneh, who appeared to many to be a respected, well-liked, sober, public-spirited legislator, in fact a predator who suddenly threw it all away by committing a disgusting sex crime in the middle of a big party? Or is Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist portrayed as a #MeToo survivor, in fact a liar seeking to advance her career by ruining an innocent man’s life?
The closest anyone will ever get to the truth will be the jury’s verdict if Dababneh’s defamation lawsuit goes to trial.