UPDATE: Ad says Calif. candidate Gil Cisneros demanded sex for campaign cash. Here's what we know
Update Oct. 1, 2018:
PolitiFact last month wrote about an ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund to point out that the group was using an unsubstantiated and serious claim about a congressman in the age of #MeToo. The ad’s sponsor, working to keep a Republican U.S. House majority, used statements from Melissa Fazli, a southern California Democrat, to say that Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros had demanded sex in exchange for a campaign contribution.
Fazli told PolitiFact when we originally reported this story that the Congressional Leadership Fund overdramatized what she was saying and took liberties with her claims. On Oct. 1, 2018, she and Cisneros said it was all a misunderstanding -- and that the ad’s sponsor got it wrong. The group had not only run ads in California but circulated postcards with Fazli’s picture, Fazli said, without asking for consent.
Fazli and Cisneros said they had a long discussion Sunday night after being invited by a community member and cleared things up.
"I misunderstood the conversations that I had with Gil Cisneros" at and after a state Democratic convention in San Diego, Fazli said. "I don’t believe that Gil sexually harassed me. The Congressional Leadership Fund lied. Rather than standing with victims and survivors of harassment and assault, they are weaponizing my story for their own political gain. I denounce their ads. Emotions, anxiety, and stress have multiplied 100-fold for women like myself during this MeToo movement. I believe Mr. Cisneros has a good heart and is truly sorry for the handling of my accusations."
Cisneros spoke of last week’s Senate Judiciary hearing and the accusations of Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
"This past week, seeing the pain of Dr. Ford and so many women and the dismissiveness of both Judge Kavanaugh and Washington Republicans, I felt it was important to reach out to meet with Melissa," Cisneros said. "I have defended the truth against millions of dollars in false attacks that both lie about the claims made and weaponize her story. I believed it was important to listen to her and to open up a line of communication. We sat down and heard each other, found a clear case of misunderstanding, and are both ready to move forward."
The statement added that as a result of the Congressional Leadership Fund’s actions, Fazli changed her car’s license plates because she feared for her and her family’s safety, and added extra security at her home.
The original story is below.
Something may or may not have happened during last February’s California Democratic Party Convention involving alcohol, a proposed hotel room visit and a follow-up phone call in which a wealthy politician may or may not have asked for sex in exchange for a campaign donation. Whatever did or didn’t happen, it’s in dispute.
Yet the claim has made it to the airwaves through ads by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC working to elect Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives. Everything about the assertion comes down to he-said, she-said accusations, and the attack ad -- of course -- carries only one side.
The PAC, allied with House Speaker Paul Ryan, says that what happened at that hotel shows that "powerful men like Gil Cisneros...think the rules don’t apply to them." These particular rules concern sexual harassment, and the ad makes a damning statement: Cisneros, a Democrat running in California’s 39th Congressional District, is accused of being drunk and "‘inviting himself back" to the hotel room of another politician, a woman who was running for a California Assembly seat at the time. The ad says that Cisneros is accused of "demanding sex in exchange for campaign cash."
Those are serious allegations, arising in the age of #MeToo. In fact, by saying the candidate demanded sex, the ad subtly goes further than even the victim has claimed.
Cisneros, running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, fiercely denies the claim. "This is politics at its worst and dangerously undermines the #MeToo movement and the survivors who step forward with legitimate accusations," said a statement from Daphne Sigala, spokeswoman for the Cisneros campaign. Cisneros has produced statements from others who say he wasn’t where his accuser says he was at the time — and that he was cogent and sober in the places he happened to be.
Why would the Congressional Leadership Fund make the claim — and does it have anything to back it up?
Asked by PolitiFact, the PAC said it is simply pointing out that the accusation was made. The Congressional Leadership Fund, running an ad with a dark tone and serious implications, maintains it is not saying the accusation is true or false. Instead, the ad says Cisneros "has been accused."
Ordinarily we tend to shy from claims that pit one person’s word against another’s if there is no way to get at the underlying facts. But the ad’s message is grave and scathing, and voters in the district, which makes up parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, are seeing it with little context with which to consider it.
So we are presenting what is known, including the take of the accuser.
The ad says specifically, "If you harass someone, you should be gone. But powerful men like Gil Cisneros, they think the rules don’t apply to them. Gil Cisneros has been accused of sexually harassing a fellow Democrat. Inviting himself back to her hotel room. Demanding sex in exchange for campaign cash. It’s sickening. Gil Cisneros, your time’s up."
The ad is based on accusations raised in early May by Melissa Fazli, a documentary filmmaker and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in the June primary for California Assembly. Her initial accusation in May got little traction in media and political circles. But the Congressional Leadership Fund recently picked up on it and launched two ads, first on Aug. 23 and then the one cited above on Sept. 6. With nearly identical language, the ads build on Fazli’s claim.
Fazli said in a May press release, on Twitter and on a Facebook Live discussion that during the state Democratic convention, she had just left a party held by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters at 11 p.m. on Feb. 24 when she encountered Cisneros near an elevator at the San Diego Bayfront Hotel. "In my opinion, he was intoxicated," Fazli wrote.
Cisneros is a Navy veteran and former shipping and distribution manager who won $266 million in the California lottery and is now an education philanthropist. Fazli said that when she ran into him that night, she told him she was running for state Assembly "and that I was going to hit him up for the maximum contribution for my campaign," she said. He joked that everyone comes to him for donations, she said, and they chatted some more "when out of the blue he asked me, ‘Should we go back to your room?’"
"I was shocked but quickly excused it because he was intoxicated," she said. "I responded, ‘I don’t think so, Gil, and I don’t think my two roommates would approve.’" She said she was laughing, and "he just smiled and the elevator doors opened."
Fazli said she wouldn’t have given this another thought if not for a phone call she made to him a week later to ask for that donation. After talking politics for a minute, she said, Cisneros asked her, "Well, what are you going to do for me?"
She said she began explaining her plan for winning, hoping to impress Cisneros with her strategy. But he interrupted, she said, and in a different tone said slowly, "No, Melissa, what are you going to do for me?"
Fazli said in her news release that "this could be interpreted two ways. Either he wants me to be his spy" — a reference to him possibly wanting her help against a then-rival for the Democratic congressional nomination — "or he wants me to have sex with him.
"After the encounter at the elevator in San Diego, I thought he wanted to have sex with me in exchange for a $4,400 donation. Either way," she said, "he wanted pay for play."
Fazli said in May that she came forward "because I thought it was necessary to let people know what kind of man is Gil Cisneros, an unethical creepy man who is using inappropriate bullying tactics to intimidate others in order to win a seat in Congress."
Cisneros and his campaign said this is all a fiction.
First of all, the campaign said, Cisneros was not at the San Diego Bayfront Hotel when Fazli says he was. He had been there earlier, however, and in the lobby ran into Fazli, who asked him for a donation but he declined, his campaign said. A campaign aide, Thomas Rivera, said he was with Cisneros, who he said was sober. In a statement from the campaign, Rivera said he couldn’t recall Cisneros making "any sort of suggestive joke or ask" when approached by Fazli or declining to contribute.
Cisneros and his aide then headed to two other events, one at the San Diego Convention Center and one at the Hard Rock Hotel, the campaign said. Witnesses at these events reported Cisneros as sober and lucid, according to recollections the campaign released. Those making the statements included a state employee, a union steward and a Democratic delegate. Local Fox 5 TV reporter Jaime Chambers also said that Cisneros appeared sober and lucid — an observation based on the fact that Chambers spoke with Cisneros at the Hard Rock Hotel just after 11 p.m.
It was an incidental meeting, not a news interview. Chambers says he was out for the night with his wife and when seeing Cisneros, he wanted to talk with him about winning the lottery and running for Congress. "I don’t know the guy from Adam," Chambers told PolitiFact. "I had about a 20-minute conversation with him."
The California Democratic Convention took place Feb. 23-25, with plenty of social events and movement between the San Diego Convention Center and hotels and venues in the general vicinity. In a news release and in discussions with reporters, the Cisneros campaign has said that even if Fazli was mixed up about the night or the time, the witness accounts of his presence and sobriety at other times still would show his accuser is wrong.
Fazli is sticking with her story. But two things stand out from PolitiFact’s telephone conversation with her.
First, Fazli, a Democrat, says that she believes Cisneros should be held accountable. She does not necessarily mind the added attention the PAC has brought to the matter. But she says she was not looking for a champion in a PAC backing a Republican agenda. Rather, she says she "put it out there for people to decide on their own" in May, before the June primary. Out of the blue, she said, the Republican PAC rekindled it.
Second, the Congressional Leadership Fund seemingly has taken a liberty with Fazli’s claim. She said she thought Cisneros wanted a quid pro quo: He’d give her a campaign contribution if she would have sex with him — or, perhaps, spy on a political foe.
She never said he "demanded sex," as the PAC’s first ad said, or was "demanding sex in exchange for campaign cash," as the more recent one put it.
"That sounds to me like some sort of blackmail situation," Fazli told us when asked about the PAC’s framing of the claim. "They used dramatic license."
We cannot resolve the differences between the two Democrats at the heart of the claim, and so we will not rate it on the Truth-O-Meter. We can only say that the Congressional Leadership Fund seized on a he-said, she-said allegation. It used dramatic license, in that Fazli told us in an email that Cisneros "didn’t ‘demand’ anything. So yeah, that characterization was for THEIR dramatic purposes only."
Did Cisneros do the things he is accused of? Voters may never know the full extent of either side’s claims. And that appears to be the ad’s very intention.