States seek changes amid growing sexual misconduct claims
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In the first week of 2019, an investigation by Oregon’s labor agency deemed the state Capitol to be a hostile workplace because of an unchecked pattern of sexual harassment among lawmakers.
A few days later, two Washington state lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct resigned. Then came new allegations of sexual wrongdoing in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where a veteran male lawmaker was accused of groping a newly elected female colleague during a pre-session reception.
“We’ve heard for a long time that this is the culture in the building, and then of course we get there and it immediately surfaces,” said Massachusetts state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a first-time lawmaker.
Barely a month into the 2019 legislative sessions, it already is clear that the #MeToo movement was not a one-year phenomenon in many state capitols. New claims of sexual misconduct are continuing to be made public concerning actions ranging from a few weeks ago to many years ago.
The latest came Friday, when Montana legislative leaders revealed that a previously unpublicized allegation of sexual harassment helped drive their current push to update policies on harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
Although half of all state legislative chambers updated their sexual harassment policies last year, an Associated Press review found that many are still looking to make changes this year.
Some states are taking their first steps since the October 2017 media reports alleging sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a national movement of people coming forward with accounts of sexual assault or harassment. In other states, lawmakers and women’s advocates are looking to take the second or third steps in what they say is a long trek toward changing attitudes and behaviors.
Sabadosa is sponsoring legislation that would create an independent commission to investigate complaints of workplace harassment by Massachusetts lawmakers. She said a House rule change adopted last year didn’t go far enough when it created a new staff position for an equal employment opportunity officer to investigate complaints.
“It feels important for the first-year class to come in and say, ‘We are done, this is enough, that culture needs to end and we’re going to be the people to make sure that it happens,’” she said.
Across the country, at least 90 state lawmakers have resigned or been removed from office, faced discipline or other repercussions, or been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since the beginning of 2017, according to an ongoing tally by The Associated Press. Sexual misconduct allegations also have toppled high-ranking executive branch officials, including Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler.
More than a half-dozen members of the U.S. Congress accused of sexual misconduct also resigned. A new federal law that took effect in January extended sexual harassment protections to congressional interns, gave victims access to confidential advisers and made lawmakers personally liable for financial settlements stemming from harassment or retaliation.
An AP review last August found that about half of the 99 state legislative chambers had updated their own sexual harassment policies since the #MeToo movement began (Nebraska has just a single legislative chamber). The most common response was to boost their own training about sexual harassment, typically by making it mandatory or providing it more frequently. Only a few legislatures passed measures that apply to private-sector workers.
Indiana legislators passed a law last year requiring them to take at least one hour of sexual harassment training annually and creating a committee to develop new sexual harassment policies.
In January, the House and Senate followed through by adopting policies expressly forbidding unwanted sexual advances and retaliation against those who make complaints. The policies also ban any sexual contact between lawmakers and interns.
The new Indiana policies come after a year in which the state attorney general and House speaker both were named in sexual misconduct allegations, which they denied.
“We want to make sure people understand we realize the importance of these issues,” said Republican Sen. Liz Brown, an attorney who helped draft the new rules.
Brown, who is chairwoman of the Senate’s ethics committee, said the rules were “thoroughly vetted and very thoroughly researched,” protect confidentiality and provide flexibility for legislative investigators to get outside help if needed.
But Jennifer Drobac, an Indiana University law professor who has written a textbook on sexual harassment law, described the new policies as disappointing. She said they use outdated definitions of sexual harassment, require a higher standard of proof than most civil cases and fail to require an outside investigation of complaints.
“What they have adopted is a late-20th century, lukewarm approach to the problem,” Drobac said. “It’s not committed, it’s not rigorous, it’s not up to date, and it does not instill confidence in my mind.”
Other states also have received both praise and criticism for their responses to sexual harassment.
The Missouri House generally was praised for working with the nonprofit Women’s Foundation to rewrite its sexual harassment policies after a House speaker resigned in May 2015 while acknowledging he had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a Capitol intern.
This past week, the House revised its policies again, allowing its ethics committee to close preliminary hearings that were previously public. Although some lawmakers objected to the potential secrecy, others said it’s intended to protect victims.
“Preliminary hearings, particularly involving sexual assault and harassment, should be not politicized,” said Democratic Rep. Gina Mitten, who supported the change.
As one of his first acts in office, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, issued an executive order that strengthened the sexual harassment reporting processes and mandated training for executive branch employees.
But that same day, the Republican-led Georgia Senate changed its rules to make it harder to bring some sexual harassment complaints. The new rules require misconduct complaints against senators and staff to be made within two years of the incident, raise the burden of proof for investigations to go forward from “reasonable grounds” to “substantial credible evidence,” require accusers to keep complaints confidential and allow penalties against those who publicize complaints or make frivolous claims.
The changes came as Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman, who was removed from a committee leadership post, publicly declared that “in the last couple of weeks, I have had sexual harassment against me.” Unterman has not provided any specific details about her allegations.
Other states have moved in the opposite direction on transparency.
The Massachusetts Senate this past week amended its rules to prohibit nondisclosure agreements, which have been used in some states to keep sexual harassment settlements secret.
In Oregon, House and Senate leaders facing a civil rights complaint over the alleged culture of harassment have pledged a variety of improved policies. One bill would establish an “equity office” to conduct outreach programs and investigate complaints. Another would allow courts to temporarily exclude an elected official from the Capitol, if a judge determines that the person’s presence creates a hostile environment.
Legislative chambers in Idaho, Louisiana and North Dakota already have enacted updated sexual harassment policies for 2019. The New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly in January to make sexual harassment training mandatory, although some male lawmakers said that carried an insulting implication that all lawmakers were harassers.
The California Legislature opened an independent office to handle investigations of alleged workplace misconduct, including sexual harassment or discrimination. A panel of outside experts will be responsible for evaluating the unit’s findings and advising the Legislature on whether to take disciplinary action against accused colleagues.
The nonprofit National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., is spearheading a coalition seeking to strengthen protections against sexual harassment in workplaces, schools and communities in at least 20 states by 2020. About 300 state lawmakers from 40 states, including men and women of both major parties, have signed on to the pledge.
“The outpouring of #MeToo stories shows how profoundly inadequate our laws have been for so long,” said Andrea Johnson, senior counsel for state policy at the National Women’s Law Center. She added: “It’s not something that gets fixed in one session.”
— Associated Press writer Tom Davies in Indianapolis and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.