State Lawmakers Confront Series Of Sexual Harassment Scandals

May 23, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 6:41 pm
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There's more awareness than ever of sexual harassment in workplaces, especially in workplaces long dominated by men. But there's still work to go in addressing it. We're going to explore what's happening in state legislatures.

Since the beginning of 2016, four lawmakers across the country have resigned or been expelled for inappropriate behavior toward women. These are legislators whose jobs include writing the laws that govern workplaces elsewhere. We're going to go to a couple state Houses dealing with this issue.

Rachel Hubbard of member station KOSU in Oklahoma City reports that part of the problem is lawmakers haven't figured out how to police themselves.

RACHEL HUBBARD, BYLINE: In the Oklahoma legislature, just 13 percent of lawmakers are women. Representative Emily Virgin says she's been harassed.

EMILY VIRGIN: As a female, I mean, I have had, you know, a number of inappropriate comments directed my way. Or maybe they weren't directed at me, but they were said around me.

HUBBARD: She's not the only one. Just this year, the Oklahoma House of Representatives has dealt with several sexual harassment scandals that involve lawmakers harassing both staff and high school pages. Oklahoma, like nine other states, doesn't seem to have clear policies or procedures for misconduct by lawmakers. Where policies do exist, they're totally inconsistent.

The new speaker of the House, Republican Charles McCall, plans to update harassment policies. But McCall says he can't compel legislators to do anything because technically they're not employees.

CHARLES MCCALL: We can't require an elected member to attend the training, but I think our members will voluntarily comply with that.

HUBBARD: Representative Virgin says training may help, but the culture in the state House needs to change. The rules that govern legislators address other forms of misconduct such as profane language and alcohol abuse. But sexual harassment is not mentioned.

VIRGIN: I know that other state agencies have sexual harassment policies and training. And there's no reason why we shouldn't have that very same training. There's no reason why, just because we're elected officials, we should be immune from that.

HUBBARD: While many lawmakers we talked to say they don't remember any real training on sexual harassment, Representative David Perryman does remember getting informal advice when he entered the legislature.

DAVID PERRYMAN: Don't take your legislative assistant to lunch.

HUBBARD: In other words, people could be watching, so exercise good judgment. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Hubbard in Oklahoma City.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: And I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Twenty-two - that's how many women alleged they were harassed by Tennessee State Representative Jeremy Durham - late-night texts, unwanted kisses and, in one instance, drinking and having sex with an underage campaign volunteer on an office couch.

Eventually Durham's behavior became impossible to ignore, prompting an investigation led by the state attorney general. But the rumors flew for three years beforehand. Leaders say their hands were tied by policies and laws that required women to complain publicly, rules lawmakers had created themselves.

FRANK GIBSON: They want some of this to be controlled and the information about it controlled.

SISK: Frank Gibson is a former political editor of The Tennessean newspaper. He took part in an official review of the state legislature's harassment policy in the wake of the Durham scandal.

GIBSON: Politicians live in fear of false accusations launched five days before an election, you know, and things like that.

SISK: The Tennessee legislature's harassment policy stressed secrecy. Even if a lawmaker was found guilty, the public was never told. As in Oklahoma, men set the rules. Just 17 percent of the Tennessee General Assembly's members are women. But one of those women is House Speaker Beth Harwell. She used the Durham scandal to rewrite the legislature's sexual harassment policy.

BETH HARWELL: I think we have changed the culture, and there is no doubt that people know that the speaker of the House takes this very seriously.

SISK: Now lawmakers and senior staff are required to go through training and to report suspicions of harassment. And those claims must be investigated. Reprimands are put on public file. Already, that policy has been put into action.

In February, a new member of the state legislature named Mark Lovell was accused of touching a woman inappropriately at an after-hours function. Like Durham, Lovell denies wrongdoing. But an ethics committee met immediately, and he resigned just days after the incident. Speaker Harwell says that is progress.

HARWELL: We're talking about a small minority of people that participate in this kind of behavior.

SISK: But even just the perception that state lawmakers often misbehave can be damaging. Katie Ziegler is a researcher at the National Conference of State Legislatures who studies women's participation rates in state politics.

KATIE ZIEGLER: You've got to have a lot of women in office to create an environment that more women want to join.

SISK: Ziegler says one reason women don't run for office is they fear a hostile workplace.

For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville.

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