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Elected officials subject to harassment settlements would be named under House bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Sexual harassment settlements involving state legislators and elected executive officials would be subject, in some measure, to public disclosure under House bills discussed Thursday in committee. 

Officials would be required to disclose the settlement amount and the name of the elected official connected to the complaint under the legislation proposed by state Reps. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, and Andrew Fink, R-Hillsdale.

The legislation discussed during the House Oversight Committee would apply to those settlements entered into on an administrative level as well as those entered into in any civil court case in which taxpayer money was used to settle the case. 

The name of the accuser would not be disclosed under the bill, which would apply to settlements entered after the passage and enactment of the bills.

"The taxpayers, they should know if their rep is a dirtbag or not," said Johnson, chairman for the House Oversight Committee. Residents also should know whether taxpayer money was used to pay for an elected officials' behavior, he added.

Johnson said he started working on some of the legislation in 2018 after accusations against longtime Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken came to light. If settlement agreements over the years had been public, perhaps some of the activity the men were accused of would have stopped sooner, Johnson said. 

The elected executive officials subject to the legislation, named in a companion bill to the one involving legislators, would include the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

The governor's office and the Legislature are not currently subject to public records requests so obtaining information on any sexual harassment settlements requires the officials' voluntary compliance.

"What we want to have is a system where a victim of harassment can be heard and where if there has been a public cost to the harassment the public is able to be aware of it, not only to see what their elected officials are up to but to see what's happening to their tax dollars,” Fink said. 

Some lawmakers expressed concerns for the victims in the cases, who may be able to be identified based on the lawmaker accused. But Johnson argued the nondisclosure of their names would be enough cover for them to remain anonymous. And Fink argued that the use of taxpayer funds to settle the suit demanded more transparency.

"I think you can understand in other circumstances, even the private sector, why even an agreement like this might be kept non-disclosed," Fink said. "The flaw in that kind of thinking in this circumstance is that we’re talking about someone the people have trusted through an election to lead our state and we're talking about money spent by the government.”

Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, noted that most lawmakers were aware of at least second-hand reports of sexual harassment settlements being entered on behalf of lawmakers in recent years. 

"We’re not talking about something in the abstract here," LaGrand said. "We’re talking about something that has actually happened and that we want to prevent happening in the future.”

The debate over how many settlements have been entered into by the Michigan Legislature and which legislators have been involved comes more than a year after former state Sen. Pete Lucido was accused of sexual harassment by several women in 2020. 

In 2020, Lucido was removed as chairman of the Senate's Advice and Consent Committee after a Senate Business Office investigation into allegations of sexual harassment found evidence he exhibited "inappropriate workplace behavior."

The investigation followed allegations from a Michigan Advance reporter that Lucido made inappropriate comments to her. Other women came forward shortly after to allege similar harassment.

Lucido, who has since been elected prosecutor in Macomb County, has said he had not sexually harassed anyone and noted that the Senate investigation found the allegations could not be "unequivocally substantiated."