The State Worker

Lawmakers ‘can’t police themselves’: How statehouses are confronting sexual harassment

A powerful Missouri lawmaker’s lust for a 19-year-old intern compelled his colleagues to ban romantic relationships between lawmakers and capitol staff.

In New York, three simultaneous sexual harassment scandals involving different state lawmakers prompted a crackdown in Albany.

And in Tennessee, persistent harassment by a state representative led his peers to expel him from the legislature last year.

Scandal by scandal, statehouses around the country are revising policies governing their responses to sexual harassment among lawmakers and political staff. Across the board, they’re trying to change a culture where people fear reporting misconduct into a system that gives victims more protection from retaliation and confidence that they’ll be treated fairly.

Sacramento will be among the next batch of capitals to reassess its sexual harassment policies when the Assembly on Nov. 28 holds a hearing prompted by the “We Said Enough” letter that dozens of female political leaders and staff members have signed. Like the other capitals, women here say they’ve been subjected to sexual harassment and deterred from reporting it.

“The time is right and I think that everybody now understands that this is very serious. It’s endemic. There’s something about the culture around power that seems to lead to this bad behavior,” said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, who will lead the hearings.

Here’s a look at how other capitals have tackled the same problems.

Independent investigations

California lawmakers can hire outside attorneys to investigate sexual harassment claims, but the first reports run through committees that are controlled by Assembly and Senate leaders. That’s a common practice among state legislatures where lawmakers retain power to censure themselves, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

The trouble is that it allows a perception to take hold that lawmakers will protect themselves.

“They pressure the employees to use the internal system and keep it all in house, which, when you have political dynamic going on, makes the power dynamic even stronger,” said Mary-Alice Coleman, an employment lawyer.

Albany sought to diminish the role of lawmakers and political staff by automatically referring sexual harassment complaints to outside attorneys when it revised its reporting process in 2013. The state’s Assembly and Senate have contracts with different law firms that handle the claims.

Lawmakers “cannot police themselves,” said Merrick Rossein, a City University of New York law professor who helped draft Albany’s policies. “They don’t have the skillset,” he said. “They’re too close to each other, and they can’t make those judgments, the hard judgments.”

Hands off staff

Missouri’s response to the scandal that brought down former House Speaker John Diehl included a ban on “romantic fraternization” among people who work in its capitol. It’s an explicit code of conduct that’s intended to remind people with power about the influence they hold.

“I want to be perfectly clear,” House Speaker Todd Richardson said when he announced reforms in 2015. “While I am speaker, sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”

Safe reporting

At the California capitol, reporting a sexual harassment claim means filing a complaint with the Assembly or Senate Rules Committee. The Senate requires the complaints to be in writing, and the person filing the claim has to swear that the contents of the document are true.

It’s a rigid process that essentially forces a victim to identify himself or herself immediately to the Legislature’s leadership. It also automatically rejects claims if they’re filed within 60 days of an election.

The process resembles how military service members report sexual harassment. Their claims also funnel to their leadership up the chain of command. But the military in recent years has adopted reforms that give troops more opportunities to make confidential reports to hotlines, inspectors general and victims advocates.

“If your system is stove-piped and if the process is not one that allows alternate avenues of complaint, you never get to the investigation,” said Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, a former employment lawyer and Air Force judge advocate.

In 2014, he sought to have the Legislature appoint an ombudsman who would not be connected to a Rules Committee. Instead, the Senate added an ombudsman but kept the position connected to the Senate leadership in the Rules Committee.

Better training

California lawmakers and political staff have to attend training sessions on sexual harassment at least once every two years. Friedman, the assemblywoman leading this month’s hearings, said they can be dull sessions that rely heavily on videos.

“I found the training pretty lacking,” she said.

Rossein in New York arranges for staff in Albany to undergo interactive training that compels people to talk to each other. For instance, he’ll discuss surveys where majorities of women view an act as harassment but majorities of men see no harm in the same incident.

“The discussions are great. People start listening to each other,” he said.

Clear rules

Law professors Barbara Bryant of UC Berkeley and Rossein said legislatures should adopt clear policies that protect confidentiality and spell out repercussions for people who violate the rules.

Bryant said the confidentiality protections should extend to people who are accused of sexual harassment, at least until investigators determine if someone might have committed a crime. That may help an accused person feel less defensive.

“If we can make progress to resolve it between the individuals, the whole idea is that it would be kept private,” she said.

Rossein advocates policies that include discipline for anyone who allows retaliation against someone who reports sexual harassment. Those consequences could include public disclosure of the complaint, and a description of the retaliation. That kind of information, he noted, can have an impact in an election.

Support networks

The “We Said Enough” movement has already carved out a space for victims of sexual harassment to share stories and advocate for policy changes. Similarly, other states that experienced sexual harassment scandals in their capitols have cultivated support networks outside of their legislatures.

In Missouri, for example, nonprofit groups created an intern resource network to help young people navigate the halls of power without being subjected to abuse.

Others are looking for more women to run for office. About 25 percent of state representatives are women, a number that has not changed significantly in about 20 years.

“We believe if there are more women in the legislatures who could be role models and peers, maybe the (victims) can go to women legislators in confidence,” said Wendy Doyle, president of the Women’s Foundation in Missouri. She has advised Missouri and Kansas on responses to sexual harassment in capitols. “You may see a different culture, too.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at