Minnesota House panel casts for ideas to combat sex harassment

Minnesota House leaders expect revisions this year to an internal policy for handling sexual harassment complaints, although it’s not yet clear if people alleging mistreatment could eventually come forward anonymously or if lawmakers found to be at fault would be publicly identified.

The formal conversation around possible changes began Monday in a new House subcommittee formed to examine workplace conditions in the wake of two legislative resignations last fall.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, who is chairing the panel, said she doesn’t have a preconceived outcome in mind. She said the first step is to seek input from staff with expertise in human resources issues as well as get a clearer sense of what is happening in other state capitols.

“Clearly this is not a new issue, but it’s something we need to get better at handling,” Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

Jonathan Griffin of the National Conference of State Legislatures said it’s a refrain he’s hearing often these days from lawmakers nationwide.

“I expect all or if not mostly all states to review or change their policies just in light of the increased attention to the topic,” Griffin said.

He said good policies describe what conduct is inappropriate and offer a clear path for people who believe they’ve been harassed without fear of retaliation.

For instance, Griffin said New Mexico updated its policy to specify where a complaint goes and make clear there’s an avenue for legislators, staff or others in the legislative process to go for help.

Georgia requires lobbyists to be aware of sexual harassment policies and allows for sanctions for violations of it. New York has legislation pending that would make it a crime of official misconduct for legislators who commit harassment.

Illinois created an anonymous tip line to receive complaints, something DFL Rep. Jennifer Schultz of Duluth wondered if Minnesota should replicate.

Griffin cautioned that it could lead to a deluge of complaints that make it hard for human resources offices to keep up.

“It is hard to investigate a complaint that is anonymous,” he added.

A better approach, he said, is to make sure complaints are handled in a discreet manner and the possible outcomes are outlined up front.

One unknown is whether the Legislature will change what is said about complaints against legislators.

Former Republican Rep. Tony Cornish and ex-DFL Sen. Dan Schoen, both of whom resigned last fall after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light, disputed the complaints they faced. Their cases surfaced when women went public with their stories.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said some people who make accusations might not want it widely known.

“It really depends on the circumstances and the perspective of the people involved and what the result of the investigation is,” Hortman said.

Peppin said it’s a difficult balance.

“People can be accused of things and they have a right to be able to defend themselves, too,” Peppin said. “I hear rumors everyday. I hear rumors about staff and members and lobbyists and media. Just because there’s a rumor doesn’t mean that should be reported to the press.”

Peppin said the House Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect will have several more hearings prior to the Legislature’s April recess and then make recommendations.