Sen. Ernst places "hold" on Biden India nominee

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has placed a “hold” on Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be ambassador to India, demanding details about how the Los Angeles mayor handled allegations of sexual harassment by his staff — and whether he's been honest explaining them to the Senate.

Why it matters: India has tried to remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, frustrating the White House. It's also a vital ally for the U.S. in its efforts to contain China. Yet more than a year into the Biden administration, the United States has no ambassador to the world's largest democracy.

  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had placed his own hold on Garcetti's nomination, meaning Ernst's decision to join him erects another procedural — and political — roadblock for President Biden’s pick.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can still force the nomination through, but only if he’s willing to burn valuable floor time and endure a public debate about sexual harassment and a hostile workplace from one of the administration’s most prominent ambassadorial nominees.
  • Garcetti’s nomination was advanced by the committee in January without any serious Republican opposition.

What they're saying: “I want some clarity here. I want to know: Were there sexual harassment issues that came up in the workplace that were not addressed by Garcetti?” Ernst told Axios. “If that's true, that's really concerning.”

  • “That would be an issue for a lot of members,” said Ernst, who has spoken about her own experience of being sexually assaulted. “We just passed the Violence Against Women Act.”
  • Ernst is also questioning the diplomatic qualifications of Garcetti to represent Biden in India.
  • India has defied pressure from the Biden administration to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and it continues to buy Russian oil after the U.S. imposed its own import ban.
  • "The president has confidence in Mayor Garcetti and believes he’ll be an excellent representative in India," a White House official told Axios.

The big picture: Matthew Garza, an LAPD officer assigned to Garcetti’s office, is suing the city for sexual harassment.

He alleges Rick Jacobs, a top political adviser to the mayor, engaged in inappropriate touching and sexual banter.

  • Garcetti, who served as Biden's campaign co-chair, was in line for a high-profile Cabinet position, but the lawsuit torpedoed his prospects. Last July, the president nominated him as envoy to New Delhi.
  • The mayor has denied any knowledge of inappropriate behavior, and told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, “I never witnessed, nor was it brought to my attention, the behavior that’s been alleged.”
  • Jacobs has also denied the allegations.
  • Last week, the L.A. Times reported Garcetti shared a city-ordered report, which largely exonerated him, with the committee. That report was made public Wednesday.

Driving the news: In February, Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit organization, filed a perjury complaint against Garcetti on behalf of Naomi Seligman.

She served as a communication aide from 2015-17 and alleged the mayor knew of Jacobs' behavior — and lied about it to the committee.

  • Seligman has briefed more than a dozen Senate offices from both parties — including members of the committee — to give a detailed account of the harassment she suffered and said she saw.
  • “We are really just helping them get a 360-degree view of the sexual harassment and abuse that the mayor witnessed and enabled,” she told Axios.
  • “Many of them have said this is deeply disturbing,” she said. “They want action.”
  • Earlier this month, Grassley announced his hold and tasked his own investigators to conduct a review of Garcetti’s actions and potential knowledge of his staff’s behavior, according to Politico.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to describe the report Garcetti shared with the committee as city-ordered rather than as his own internal investigation.

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