Jefferson City, Mo. — Michigan’s statehouse has been roiled for the past month after an extramarital affair between two lawmakers became public, ultimately leading to both losing their seats.
At the same time, two state lawmakers in Minnesota, also married to other people, were forced to step down from an ethics committee after a ranger cited them with a misdemeanor for making out in a public park.
These episodes follow scandals earlier in the year involving male lawmakers and their young interns in Missouri’s capital city. Kentucky and Vermont also have generated their own share of headlines in recent months for sex-themed spectacles involving state lawmakers.
It’s as if politicians have forgotten the lessons of former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached in 1998 — but ultimately remained in office — after being accused of lying about his sexual relationship with a White House intern.
Beyond the natural interest in the sexual escapades of elected officials, why should the public care? The Associated Press provides some reasons.
Why it matters
Political sex scandals distract elected officials from working on public policy and can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, lost productivity and special elections. Depending on the circumstances, they also can lead to conflicts of interest that call into question the motivations of elected officials.
With politicians already ranking low in public opinion polls, each additional scandal further erodes the public confidence in government and adds to a stereotype that discourages some people from participating in the political process.
“They’re abusing the public trust, and that matters to all of us because this drip of stuff over time makes us less able to be an effective political society,” said John Chamberlin, a professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Michigan who specializes in political ethics.
When The Detroit News revealed secret audio recordings of Republican Michigan Rep. Todd Courser plotting a smear campaign against himself in an attempt to divert attention from his affair with GOP Rep. Cindy Gamrat, the reaction among some people was: “This is number 1,706 of things that legislators are bad at,” Chamberlin said.
Courser resigned Friday as it appeared legislators were likely to oust him, while Gamrat was removed from office in a vote by her colleagues. Both are married.
Not only will taxpayers foot the costs for the special elections to replace them, but roughly 90,000 people in each of the lawmakers’ former districts will have no elected representative in the Michigan House until March.
One week earlier in Minnesota, Republican Reps. Tim Kelly and Tara Mack paid fines after being cited by a county park ranger for causing a nuisance by allegedly “making out” in a parked car. The ranger also wrote in his notes that Mack’s pants were unzipped and pulled down.
The lawmakers, who are each married to other people, initially called the accusation a lie but ultimately decided against challenging it. They remain in office, but last week agreed to relinquish their positions on the House Ethics Committee.
Legislators and staff
Whereas the Michigan and Minnesota scandals centered on lawmakers’ relationships with each other, state lawmakers elsewhere have been in the headlines because of their actions toward staff and interns.
In Vermont, Republican Sen. Norm McAllister has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts after being arrested May 7 outside the statehouse. He is accused of demanding sex in exchange for rent and assaulting women who worked on his dairy farm, including one person who worked for a while as his legislative intern.
Missouri Republican House Speaker John Diehl resigned from office May 15, just days after the media reported he had exchanged sexually suggestive text messages with a Capitol intern. His departure came on the final day of session, forcing colleagues to pause their frenzied push to pass legislation and instead focus on electing a new leader.
Later this summer, Missouri Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota also resigned after investigations into claims that he sexually harassed an intern, which he denied.
Under a legal settlement confirmed in July, Kentucky taxpayers will pay $400,000 to settle lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and retaliation involving Democratic lawmakers. Two aides claimed Rep. John Arnold — who has since resigned — touched them inappropriately and one said she was fired by House Majority Whip Johnny Bell in retaliation for filing the lawsuit. Another employee alleged she was demoted after complaining that Rep. Will Coursey sexually harassed female staffers. The lawmakers all denied the allegations.
When legislators pursue their interns or staff members, “that is such an absolutely disparity in power,” said Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It’s a massive problem, he said.
Legislators and lobbyists
Additional concerns come into play when legislators are involved in sexual relationships with lobbyists.
In one high-profile case involving a California lawmaker, Republican Rep. Mike Duvall resigned in 2009 after a videotape surfaced in which he described to a colleague his sexual exploits with lobbyists. Immediately, there were questions about whether the alleged affairs might have influenced his votes.
In 2010, Democratic Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, who was going through a divorce, acknowledged he had dated a lobbyist for a payday loan business. Sheridan said that had not influenced his actions on payday loan legislation, although he had changed his prior position and voted against a rate cap on the industry. Sheridan lost re-election later that year.
When lawmakers and lobbyists hook up, “there’s certainly a conflict of interest there. It’s implausible to believe that might not have an effect on their legislative behavior,” said Chamberlin, of the University of Michigan.
Yet some states have no particular prohibition against such relationships.
In response to a hypothetical scenario, the North Carolina Ethics Commission ruled earlier this year that sexual acts between a lobbyist and state official are not considered “gifts” that must be reported on lobbyist disclosure forms.
What can be done?
Changing the environment inside state capitols can be a difficult task, potentially complicated by the reality that statehouses remain a largely male-dominated workplace.
The percentage of state lawmakers who are women has tripled from 8 percent in 1975 to 24 percent today, but that has remained essentially unchanged over the past seven years.
The Missouri House has created a task force to revise its intern policies in response to the sexually charged relationship between its former speaker and an intern. But a backlash erupted on social media when some male lawmakers suggested a new dress code for interns, saying it could help eliminate distractions for lawmakers.
Vermont’s Senate minority leader has said lawmakers there also will likely take a more formal approach to bringing interns to the statehouse.
But there is only so much that can be done through new rules and procedures, especially because lawmakers are elected and therefore enjoy a great deal of independence, at least until voters have their say.
While legislators should be held to a higher standard, “this is something that goes on in any large institution,” Siewert said, especially when you “add a lot of power, money and prestige, all of which are aphrodisiacs. …These are deep, kind of human psychological traits that you’re probably not going to change on a higher scale.”
Associated Press Staff Writers Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky; Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vermont; Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin; and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed.
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