Sexual harassment complaint filed against unnamed state senator

A sexual harassment complaint was filed against a sitting state senator last spring, and the identity of the lawmaker is being kept confidential. So is any information about the nature of the complaint and whether the senator in question has been reprimanded.

That's because, senators say, current Senate rules do not allow a special panel to reveal the name of any individuals involved in a sexual harassment case, unless that senator is formally sanctioned by the body for misconduct.

In both the Vermont House and Senate, privacy is maintained for both the accused and the accuser unless the incident rises to the level of censure.

There is no provision for public disclosure of a reprimand. And sexual harassment procedures are kept so private that information about the identities of those involved and the nature of the complaints is kept from the Senate president pro tem and House speaker.

Reporters who were on hand to interview Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson on their legislative agendas for the upcoming session demanded to know who the senator in question was, were outraged that the information couldn't be disclosed under current rules and were stunned to learn that even Statehouse leaders were kept in the dark.

Ashe and Johnson told reporters that as the Senate and House reviews policies in January, they will reconsider whether reprimands should be disclosed to the public.

"One of the issues we are going to have to evaluate is whether the amount of information the current policy allows us to reveal is sufficient," Ashe said. "On the one hand, if a complaint is brought and it turns out there is no substance to it the question is what information is revealed to the public, and conversely, if something has happened what should be released. We're working through those to determine what the best practices are."

Ashe said that sexual harassment complaints are treated no differently than other confidential matters, such as nominations for the judiciary, which are kept secret, even from the Senate leader.

"Should the leader of the Senate have a different way of getting information than other senators who are also not on the panel?" Ashe said. "That's something we should explore I suppose."

Johnson said she believes the House speaker should be aware of sexual harassment complaints. A House panel is working through a review of current policies.

"In light of all of the different allegations across the country, we're really diving in and seeing how we can take our current policies and really make them the gold standard," Johnson said.

She suggested that the panel should also include representatives for legislative staff and lobbyists who work in the Statehouse.

The current sexual harassment rules were put in place after Sen. Norm McAllister was arrested on Statehouse grounds in May 2015 for allegedly raping an intern who had worked for him at the Statehouse and other sexual misconduct at his farm in Franklin County. At the time, senators were not aware that the woman, employed by McAllister to work for him at the Statehouse, was an intern.

In January 2016, McAllister was sanctioned and ousted by the Senate. His case has gone to trial and all but one charge, a sex for rent scheme, have been dropped.

The Senate passed new sexual harassment rules last year and a requirement that all interns register with the sergeant-at-arms.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct case and many others that have come to light in recent months, Ashe and Johnson said the Statehouse rules need to be revised.

"I don't think there's a member of the Senate who doesn't believe we all need to do a better job," Ashe said.

Complaint in question

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, chair of the Senate sexual harassment panel, said the complaint that was filed in the spring was thoroughly vetted under current Senate policy. Balint refused to characterize the nature of the complaint except to say it had been adjudicated.

"The policy was followed from beginning to end so you can go back and read the policy, and that's all that I can share at this point in terms of the details," Balint said.

She emphasized that the accuser had an opportunity to be heard and the process protected the individual's privacy.

Complaints are filed in writing and signed by the accuser, according to Senate rules. The panel then must give a copy of the complaint to the accused. The panel then investigates by interviewing witnesses and collecting available documents. If the panel finds that there is not enough evidence to support a charge of violation, the complaint is closed and remains confidential. If there are reasonable grounds to support a violation, the panel can enter into a resolution with the accused and accuser. Or the panel can issue a confidential stipulation against the accused and a reprimand. If the accused doesn't enter into a stipulation, the panel can hold a hearing in which the accused can call witnesses and bring evidence. Sexual harassment hearings are closed to the public.

If the panel finds that a violation occurred, the matter is taken to the Senate Rules Committee, which determines whether formal sanction by the full body is necessary.

Balint says the policy is designed to protect the accuser, not to keep the public in the dark.

"My job is to make people feel like they can come forward," she said. "I know there are people in this building who have had incidents and they don't feel comfortable coming forward. I want to be sure the policy doesn't discourage people from coming forward because we're talking about a culture change here. If people don't feel comfortable bringing it up we're not going to be able to change it."

John Bloomer, the secretary of the Senate, said the accuser has the right to sue the individual in question in civil court or disclose the information publicly at any time.

Balint said she and Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, chair of the House sexual harassment panel, will meet in January to revise the current policies and procedures. The Vermont Human Rights Commission has been working with Balint to identify holes in the process for handling complaints.

Balint said the changes are necessary because there has been "a sea change since we left here."

Public disclosure of complaints can be problematic, she said, and she is working with Bloomer to assess how best to accommodate the public's right to know.

"So the hard part for me is that sexual harassment means a lot of things now, it means Garrison Keillor putting his hand up behind someone's dress, and it means Harvey Weinstein jerking off in front of people, so there's a wide range of what's going on here," Balint said. "And so when we say sexual harassment the public is going to jump to some of those more salacious details.

"Just because someone is accused does not mean that they're guilty," Balint said.

"Do we have a sexual harassment problem at the Statehouse?" Stewart Ledbetter, of WPTZ, asked.

"Now that is an interesting question," Balint said. "Because in my personal experience have people said things to me that were inappropriate? I can only go on my own experience, but of course there have been things that have been said that were inappropriate.

"We are part of a larger problem in the nation," she said. "We're not an island here. Of course in every work place people are going to feel they're not in a safe working environment. Are we an anomaly? No, of course not.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions