Lansing – The Michigan Legislature is mandating more frequent sexual harassment training amid the national reckoning with sexual misconduct.
Until now, lawmakers were required to take anti-harassment training only after they were elected to the House or Senate. Starting next week in the Senate and in February in the House, all legislators and staff members will be required to participate in training once a year.
“It’s not going to be a one-time deal for members and employees when they first come here,” said Doug Simon, House business director.
The Legislature so far has not seen lawmakers publicly accused of sexual misconduct, by name, as in other statehouses around the country. Yet some prominent political figures, such as gubernatorial candidate and former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer, have detailed inappropriate behavior they attribute in part to a “locker room” culture in the male-dominated Capitol.
She and others have said women are reluctant to come forward and risk their career advancement.
A look at the current culture inside the Capitol and proposed changes:
Over the last decade, there has been one formal sexual harassment or misconduct complaint against a legislator, according to a review by The Associated Press. The House paid $11,950 in 2015 to settle a lawsuit against then-Democratic Rep. Brian Banks of Detroit, who was accused of firing an aide after the employee rejected Banks’ sexual advances. The House spent about $85,000 on outside lawyers in the case. Banks, who was not disciplined because no allegations were proven in court, resigned earlier this year as part of a plea deal to resolve charges that he submitted fraudulent pay stubs to secure a loan in 2010.
Sexual harassment of lawmakers and employees is prohibited under House and Senate rules. Procedures in place are designed to ensure that nonpartisan business offices, not just legislative leaders, are made aware of any concerns. The chambers differ, however, on how they investigate complaints. The Senate relies on outside lawyers. In the House, the business office investigates, with assistance from in-house legal counsel for either the majority or minority party.
Requiring more frequent harassment training stems in part from a review of all policies and procedures that was done after the Senate’s 2015 creation of a business office, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. That office is structured similarly to a human resources department, similar to one the House has long had.
But she added: “You can’t deny that there’s an awareness going on right now about the fact that perhaps we’re not as sensitive as we should be as a culture to some of the issues that people experience in the workplace. We’re going to make sure we’re doing our best to make sure all of our employees feel like they have access to everything they need and that all of our senators are well-versed in appropriate behavior.”
Training materials and how training is conducted also are under review.
When formal sexual harassment complaints are made within the Legislature, it is difficult to learn of them because lawmakers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. While financial records must be disclosed under legislative rules and the Michigan Constitution, allegations or details of legal settlements can be kept secret aside from the payout amount.
Simon, of the House business office, said the House ordinarily would not have divulged Banks’ name in response to an AP records request, but did so because his accuser filed a lawsuit, making it public. No other formal complaints have been made against a legislator since 2008, according to House and Senate officials.
“While we have had that instance where we did have to pay, it’s not like we have this slush fund and all these cases where we’re paying people out,” said Simon.
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