The seams of Nora Campos’ carefully curated public image are unraveling at a garish pace. A year after San Jose Inside first reported that the San Jose assemblywoman had lost control of her office—firing employees at an unprecedented clip, wasting a half-million dollars for constituent services—a new source has come forward with details about the embarrassing state of affairs.
Steve Harmon, a former Bay Area News Group reporter who spent 26 years in journalism and the last 19 months working as Campos’ spokesman, granted interviews last week on the tumult that has taken place behind closed doors.
Fired in January, Harmon said that Campos’ chief of staff, Sailaja Rajappan, in particular, has created a “toxic” and “hostile” work environment in which a turnstile of employees were unfairly blamed for mistakes, routinely berated in public and eventually fired. A Bay Area News Group report noted that 46 employees have worked in Campos’ office in just four years. San Jose Inside spoke with Harmon about his time in the office in greater detail.
“[Rajappan] runs that show,” he said. “Campos is absentee. This isn’t to absolve Campos. Campos enables it all. But Sailaja runs that shop, and she is responsible for the terrible, low morale.”
Harmon recalled several instances in which both Campos and Rajappan, who previously worked in the office of state Sen. Elaine Alquist, flew into fits of rage. In one instance, Campos’ actions led to an official complaint by a fellow assembly member. Unable to get Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) to meet about one of her bills, Campos reportedly stormed into his office and berated one of his staffers.
“It was so hostile and so intimidating that the girl complained to Roger and he filed a complaint,” Harmon said.
San Jose Inside contacted Hernandez’ capitol and district offices; neither responded to requests to confirm or deny the report. Campos’ office also did not return a call requesting comment. It appears the Assembly’s Committee on Rules meted no discipline in response to the complaint, Harmon said, perhaps because the policies on such behavior are intentionally vague.
“The rules folks made it clear—unless you’re slapped or hit physically or (sexually) harassed … they can treat you any way they want,” Harmon said.
In other instances, Harmon said, Rajappan shifted blame to other staffers to avoid Campos’ wrath. One example he gave included a list of talking points he put together on the inner workings of the capitol—at Rajappan's direction. Campos had a fit, calling it one of the worst speeches she had ever read—it was intended to just be a list of talking points—and Rajappan reportedly stayed silent to let her newer colleague take the fall.
Harmon also recalled Campos’ reaction to opening remarks in a speech he wrote for her on education: “She said, ‘I don’t say ‘thank you.’ I am a powerful woman. They thank me!’”
From that point on, Harmon said, Rajappan’s treatment of him and other employees varied between “seething anger” and “understated hostility.”
"That was my first real exposure to the arbitrary and capricious ways of that office," he said, "and to Sailajja’s inability to stand up for her staff and willingness to throw her staffers under the bus."
Harmon's remarks represent a dramatic shift from comments he made a year ago to radio station KLIV 1590. Just days after San Jose Inside’s initial report on the dysfunction and aggressive treatment of staff within Campos’ office, Harmon, working in his role as office spokesman, marginalized the story and challenged the authenticity of the reporting.
“A story that’s based on unattributed sources really stretches credibility,” Harmon told KLIV. “As a former journalist, I tried to limit that. It just feels like it was built on rumors and innuendo and nothing was verified, at least through attributable sources.”
No longer required to defend his employer, Harmon last week modified his critique. “I do apologize and acknowledge what you did was a good public service,” Harmon said. “I think the impact you made was tremendous; it reverberated around the capitol.”
Campos’ harassment and intimidation tactics haven't been limited to just her office. Last month, she claimed a delegate election in her district had been "a fraud," accusing fellow Democrats of rigging the results. A review by the state Democratic Party found no evidence to support her claims.
In 2013, Lisa Jensen, a former campaign staffer for Magdalena Carrasco, one of the Campos family's political rivals, testified at a grand jury hearing that Campos had threatened her in 2010 with being politically blacklisted. This occurred during Carrasco’s first, unsuccessful run for a San Jose City Council seat against Campos’ younger brother, Xavier Campos. That race also featured an illegal mailer that accused Carrasco of being a communist and was later linked to Xavier Campos’ campaign. He won the council seat in 2010 but lost the rematch to Carrasco last year.
“It is surprising how they built their machine [in San Jose] and how they rose to where they’re at, given how they treat people,” Harmon said. “I am breaking a code of silence that I think has perpetuated this awful situation. I’m doing it at a risk, but I feel like it needed to be said. And I’m hoping something comes of it."
Campos won a final term in November, allowing her to hold office until the end of 2016. Chances are she’s hiring. Apply at your peril.