Lawmakers press new plan to handle harassment complaints

Published 10:44 pm Monday, December 11, 2017

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

Driven by the recent resignations of two state legislators over sexual misconduct allegations, Rep. John Lesch and Rep. Marion O’Neill on Monday unveiled a plan to remake the Capitol’s sexual harassment reporting system.

“This workplace has to be a safe workplace. That’s our No. 1  goal,” said O’Neill, adding that women could be reluctant to come forward if they don’t believe they’ll get a fair hearing and there won’t be appropriate sanctions. The subjects of complaints also need to be assured they won’t be deprived the right to a defense, she said.

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Under their proposal, a complaint made with specific factual evidence would automatically be referred to the House Ethics Committee. That panel, with equal members from both parties, would have to decide within 30 days if probable cause exists.

If it doesn’t, nothing would become public. If there is a probable cause determination, a full-blown investigation that includes a public hearing would be held and a ruling would come within two months of that.

“It can be anything from a private reprimand all the way up to the person being kicked out of the body,” said Lesch of the range of punishments that could result from a substantiated complaint.

Confidentiality would be provided and that complaints could come from anyone with a tie to the Capitol, including staff, lobbyists and visitors from the public, said O’Neill, R-Maple Lake.

The plan they’ll take to colleagues would require a change to House rules. That can’t happen before the Legislature returns on Feb. 20.

The push to overhaul the current system comes weeks after two state lawmakers — Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center and Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park — announced plans to step down amid a wave of allegations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol. Female lobbyists, staff and fellow lawmakers said it stemmed from a culture where too many looked the other way when it came to bad behavior.

The pair is open to modifications. Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he’s already heard from people who still aren’t sure it provides enough protection.

“You can see what’s happening in the media, what’s happening in the nation right now is sexual harassment,” O’Neill said. “We want to start with where the world is right now, where is Minnesota today. Today, the issue is sexual harassment. So, we will cross that bridge when we come to it if there is something in a greater scope that is important, but for today it’s sexual harassment.”

Theirs isn’t the only plan out there. Others want a task force or independent investigation to get to the bottom of sexual harassment in state government.

In the meantime, lawmakers are attending training on how to prevent harassment.

Under orders by the Republican and Democratic leaders, all 134 House members will be required to go through a special training soon after the 2018 session begins.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka sat through his two-hour refresher course last week. The Nisswa Republican says he expects his Senate colleagues to take the training seriously.

“There’s a number of folks that maybe didn’t think they needed to do it, but they all recognize that it needs to be done,” he said. “I really haven’t had any complaints from anybody to get it done.”