Jennifer Van Laar said that as a woman working in politics or business, she figured she would be hit on. But what she didn’t expect was the retaliation she said she experienced in the aftermath of accusing then-Assembly candidate Dante Acosta of sexual harassment.
“I guess I was naïve when I started in politics,” she said on “The Talk of Santa Clarita,” a local podcast. “I looked at people who were congressmen or assemblymen or state senators as people I should look up to, who had good morals and values and who were looking out for the best in whatever community or nation, and then you get involved in something like this and you see people acting like that, in worse ways than most working class people would act. And you go, oh, do I really want these people as leaders?”
Van Laar, 45, alleged that not only did Acosta proposition her, but Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Antelope Valley) tried to punish her and keep her and her business partner from working after she told Wilk’s wife, Vanessa, and Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) about what she claimed Acosta had done.
“My theory is, looking back on it now, is because they were told in June (2016) about this and did nothing, and it could come back to make him look bad, so he just wants to punish me,” she said. “I had heard of rumors of, ‘Don’t cross them or the payback’s a bitch,’ and I saw that. I wasn’t even crossing them. I was trying to help them. That’s the thing. I was going to them as friends and warn them and protect them from what could be a damaging affiliation.”
In an emailed statement, Wilk said he listened to the podcast and said Van Laar’s claims that he discouraged people to do business with her are false. Acosta Chief of Staff David Creager said Acosta has no comment. Acosta has previously denied the allegations, has called Van Laar a liar who was looking for revenge and said she was trying to land him as a client.
Although Van Laar, a Simi Valley resident, had previously written about her ordeal on RedState.com and had filed a defamation suit against Acosta before withdrawing it due to what she said was the stress of her father’s deteriorating health, the podcast was the first time she had spoken publicly about her ordeal.
She said she did it now because host Stephen Daniels asked and, with all of the allegations that have come out in various industries against various leaders, it was time. Also, she felt by staying quiet, she was doing a disservice to any women who have not yet come forward.
“I felt the atmosphere has really changed around this issue in the last year,” she said. “I feel I have a responsibility to talk about this issue.”
Van Laar said she had met Acosta when both worked for Knight and she found him friendly, outgoing, ambitious and a conversationalist. In January 2015, they were in Washington for Knight’s swearing-in, Van Laar having moved on to political consulting.
Van Laar said Acosta wanted to talk about his political future with her. At the time, Knight moving to the House meant his state Senate seat was open, and Acosta wanted to run for it, but wasn’t sure of his chances if Wilk or anyone else ran for it.
Van Laar said on the podcast that she thought he wasn’t that great on policy, “but there’s not a whole lot of work for a Republican campaign strategist in California.”
He invited Van Laar out for a drink, she said, and then propositioned her. She didn’t detail his exact words but said she laughed it off.
“You figure you’re going to get hit on in business, and if you shut it down forcefully, then you get called a bitch and they go around saying that you’re a horrible person, so you have to shut it down but in a nice way,” she said. “So, I said, ‘Oh I don’t mix business and pleasure. Ha-ha,’ and went on with the conversation for about 10 minutes.”
She said she went to her hotel room and called some friends to tell them what happened and how disgusted she felt.
She said Acosta never propositioned her again but made comments, “whether it’s about how my skirt made my legs look, or my heels, or how my dress hit my curves the right way, or just the up-and-down leering look.”
But although she said she felt anxious whenever she was in the same room as Acosta, she wasn’t done with him. Before the late Sharon Runner ran for the seat, her health was in question, and around Christmas 2015 Van Laar had heard she might not run, so she texted Acosta, met him for coffee, told him what she knew, “and we kind of made plans of what he wanted to do to be in that position to file if it were to become available.”
Her reasons for doing so: “He was a potential client still. I had said no. He hadn’t propositioned me again. While some of his comments were disturbing and inappropriate, I’d said no. I figured I was the only one. I didn’t know of anyone else who had been treated that way and just figured there’s a lot of men that do act like that.”
Later, when she heard hints that she wasn’t the only one, she felt she had to do something. She contacted Knight first because he had endorsed Acosta, and this could hurt his re-election campaign and/or the Republican Party.
“He was stunned, sad for me, apologetic to me, very sensitive,” Van Laar said. “If you’re going to talk to somebody you consider a friend about an issue like that, he was exactly how you would hope somebody would respond. He asked if I wanted him to take any particular actions. I said no.”
Knight Communications Director Chris Jusus said he had listened to the podcast but could not confirm or deny Van Laar’s account.
“He supports women who come out with their stories, and (they) should be treated with respect,” Jusus said of Knight.
Van Laar said she didn’t want anything to come out because it would put her in an awkward position. So, she called her friend Vanessa Wilk, Scott’s wife, and spoke for about 20 minutes. Vanessa urged her to not go public out of respect to Acosta’s wife, Carolyn. Instead, she suggested Van Laar go through the senior district Republicans and let them handle it.
On June 2, 2016 Van Laar sent an email to Vanessa Wilk, a copy of which appeared on the website Sclarita that October. Van Laar also cc’d Scott Wilk and Knight. In it, she expressed sympathy for Carolyn Acosta and concern for the Republican Party and the district.
“But at the same time, I cannot sit back as someone, I believe, will eventually embarrass the district and the party and maybe even cost us a legislative seat because of his constant skirt chasing climbs the ladder,” she wrote. “If he would use his position to proposition me, what would he do as an Assemblyman in Sacramento where there are Capitol staffers and interns and lobbyists for him to chase after?”
Vanessa Wilk told The Signal in October 2016, “I don’t know if it’s true, but it was suspect to me, the timing of the phone call.”
Van Laar said the repercussions were great. The Republican Party abandoned her, people began saying she misinterpreted things, was difficult to work with, was socially awkward and had a friend who was a pedophile, which made her laugh and allege Acosta’s surrogates were behind that.
“I know I didn’t misinterpret anything,” she said. “I’ve never heard ‘socially awkward,’ or difficult to work with. I can be intense for sure, but what does ‘difficult to work with’ have anything to do with this?”
She also alleges Acosta retaliated by threatening her business associates with their jobs if they didn’t call Van Laar a liar. “I had people I considered friends out doing videos calling me a liar and basically insinuating that I was pursuing Dante,” she said. This was one of the main reasons she filed a defamation lawsuit against Acosta and other unnamed defendants on Nov. 1, 2016.
In December 2017, Van Laar wrote an email to Assemblyman Ken Cooley
(D-Rancho Cordova), who chairs the Rules Committee, alleging Acosta improperly used Assembly funds to harass and intimidate her in February and that he and Scott Wilk conspired to “defame me and destroy my career.”
“I am filing this report because I believe Asm. Acosta and Sen. Wilk’s retaliatory conduct toward me, both as legislative candidates and now as elected office holders, should not be tolerated, and they should be held accountable,” the letter concluded.
A call seeking comment from Cooley’s office was not returned. Wilk not only denied any conspiracy to the Gazette, but agreed that his wife was right to encourage Van Laar to go to Knight.
Van Laar said she hopes the Rules Committee will discipline Acosta in some way, and she hopes the voters will vote out Acosta and Wilk. Acosta faces re-election against Democrat Christy Smith (who declined comment) in November; Wilk isn’t up for re-election until 2020.
She said she feels betrayed and now considers herself party-less. She said she rooted for Christy Smith to win in 2016 and won’t vote for Acosta this time, but she also won’t endorse Smith. She no longer considers the Wilks friends.
She also doesn’t regret her actions.
“I don’t have any regrets about telling (Knight) or the Wilks about it, because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Once I knew there were rumors of other women that this kind of behavior had happened with, I felt like I had a duty to let them know. That wasn’t wrong. As far as coming forward about the retaliation, I don’t have any regrets about that. Even if there were negative consequences to me, I still think it’s the right thing to do. I think you stand up for what’s right even if it hurts.”