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House Ethics Committee hears sex harassment policy

January 11, 2019

Much like similar language adopted by the Senate Ethics Committee, a proposed amendment to the Indiana House Code of Ethics would explicitly prohibit sexual harassment by lawmakers and sexual relationships between lawmakers and their interns.

The House Ethics Committee considered proposed revisions to the chamber’s internal rules Thursday in response to House Enrolled Act 1309, a 2018 bill that required the creation of a legislative sexual harassment prevention policy. The proposed amendments to both chambers’ codes of ethics were initially drafted by the Legislative Services Agency and the Personnel Subcommittee of the Legislative Council before being approved by the full council last November.

Now, the amendments are before the House and Senate ethics committees, the latter of which approved its version of the sexual harassment prevention language earlier this week, sending the language to the full Senate for approval. The House committee has yet to officially adopt the amendment, meeting Thursday only to hear public testimony and have committee discussion.

Consideration of Statehouse harassment policies comes after Attorney General Curtis Hill was accused of groping a lawmaker and legislative aides last year, and after House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, was accused last year of a consensual sex act with an intern 20 years earlier. Both men have denied the claims.

The crux of the amendments to both the House and Senate ethics rules is the addition of language explicitly stating that harassment committed by a lawmaker is a violation of ethics rules. George Angelone, an attorney and director of the Legislative Services Agency, said the bill would allow lawmakers, legislative employees or any other person interacting with the Legislature to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Ethics Committee. However, the committee would have authority to investigate only the actions of legislators.

During the initial investigation, Ethics Committee members would have the discretion to keep sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers confidential, Angelone said. But once the committee makes a finding of an ethical violation and files a resolution for sanctions with the House Speaker, then the complaint would become public, he said.

However, the names of witnesses, complainants and anyone involved under the age of 18 could be redacted from the public report, Angelone said. He also noted the amended language does not impose a “gag order” on the accusers, meaning they could make their allegations public even before a resolution to the Speaker is filed.

The amendment would further prohibit “fraternization” between lawmakers and legislative interns from either chamber, even if the intern consents to the relationship. The amendment adopted by the Senate Ethics Committee likewise prohibited sexual relationships between legislators and interns.

Public testimony on the amendment was relatively brief, with only two people offering comments to committee members. One of those people was Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, who said she was pleased to learn that anyone who has contact with the Legislature could file a complaint against a lawmaker. An earlier draft of the amended language indicated only lawmakers could report other lawmakers, and Vaughn said she had been concerned that other Statehouse employees would not have had recourse with the Ethics Committee.

But Vaughn did have one lingering concern about the proposed language: its transparency. The Ethics Committee’s role in the investigation, as the policy is written, would be too opaque, Vaughn said, potentially driving down public confidence in the committee’s work.

A possible solution, Vaughn suggested, would be to bring in non-legislators to conduct the investigations, a process currently employed by the Kentucky General Assembly. That would help alleviate some public concerns about lawmakers investigating allegations against their peers, she said.

In response, Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, told Vaughn he is inclined toward transparency but had concerns about people taking advantage of that transparency and publicly making false accusations against lawmakers. He pointed to the example of competitive election cycles in which political opponents might want to create negative headlines about each other.

Vaughn said she had similar conversations with Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, when he chaired the Ethics Committee. She agreed with Pierce that sexual assault allegations should be kept confidential until the committee determines the allegations have merit. At that point, the complaint should become public, she said.

Also speaking Thursday was Susan Zoeller, an attorney in the Indianapolis office of labor and employment law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. Zoeller said she had previously talked to lawmakers about how to best draft the sexual harassment language and wanted to make herself available if the committee members still had questions about the language before them.

Steuerwald, who still sits on the committee despite no longer being the chair, asked whether filing a complaint with the Ethics Committee would preclude an alleged victim from also seeking relief in federal or state court. Zoeller answered negatively, further noting that filing a committee complaint would also not be required before filing a complaint in court.

Additionally, faced with a question from Rep. Karen Engleman, R-Georgetown, the author of HEA 1309, Zoeller said the intern provision of the language would not apply retroactively to lawmakers who have previously had relationships with their interns.

At the conclusion of testimony, committee chair Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, said she did not schedule a committee vote for Thursday because she wanted committee members to have a “good feel” for the proposed amendment. But at the committee’s next meeting, which has yet to be scheduled, Negele said lawmakers will not take testimony but instead will only consider amendments and vote.

 

 

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