Over 100 state lawmakers accused of misconduct in 3 years
Jefferson City, Mo. — State lawmakers across the U.S. have reached a troubling milestone for allegations of sexual misconduct, even as they have taken significant steps to try to prevent and investigate such behavior.
Recent complaints filed against Michigan state Sen. Peter Lucido mean at least 101 state legislators now have been publicly accused of sexual harassment or misconduct since the start of 2017, according to an Associated Press review.
That tally has continued to grow, despite the fact that the vast majority of state legislative chambers now require lawmakers to undergo training about sexual harassment, the AP review found.
“Training doesn’t guarantee that harassment will stop,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The AP review found mixed indications of progress and problems as the #MeToo movement enters its third legislative year. Over the past two years, states have enacted more than 75 laws and resolutions targeting sexual harassment, abuse and assault within government or the private sector.
Some of those laws have required regular training intended prevent harassment, established clear channels for reporting allegations, granted greater legal protections to whistle blowers, shed public light on secretive settlements and extended the deadline for prosecuting or suing over past instances of sexual abuse. At least two-thirds of all states have enacted some sort of new law in the #MeToo era.
The AP review found that at least 43 state Senate chambers and 45 House or Assembly chambers require sexual harassment training for their members. That’s up significantly from January 2018, when the AP’s initial survey found that about a third of all legislative chambers did not require lawmakers to receive training about what constitutes sexual harassment, how to report it and what consequences it carries.
Two years ago, the AP found that only a minority of legislative bodies conducted external investigations into complaints, with most others entrusting lawmakers or staff to look into allegations against colleagues. Today, the AP found that about half of all state legislative chambers have procedures for external investigators to look into sexual misconduct complaints involving lawmakers — a process that experts say can instill greater confidence for people to come forward with complaints.
Some states don’t require the use of external investigators but allow it as an option.
Michigan’s Republican Senate majority leader is hiring outside lawyers to assist the nonpartisan Senate Business Office in its investigation of Lucido, who faces two separate complaints.
Lucido, a Republican, was accused last week of making a sexist remark to a female reporter seeking an interview. After that incident was publicized, Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow came forward this week to allege that she had been sexually harassed by Lucido during a Senate orientation session shortly after the November 2018 elections. She said Lucido held his hand on her lower back, near her rear, during a conversation about how she won election and looked her up and down while commenting: “I can see why.”
Lucido issued a brief apology for the “misunderstanding” with the reporter but later said he was misquoted. He denied McMorrow’s allegations as “completely untrue and politically motivated.”
Michigan Senate policy requires members to receive training regarding sexual harassment. That training occurred at the same orientation in which McMorrow alleges she was harassed during a break by Lucido. During the training session, McMorrow said, Lucido raised various scenarios in which sexual harassment could occur and commented: “The culture is what it (is) around here. We can’t change that.”
Experts agree that cultural change in an institution takes much more than basic training about what constitutes harassment.
“The reality is that people who sexually harass, they know – they already know what this is,” said Debbie S. Dougherty, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who ho researches sexual harassment policies. “That’s why we find that these kind of informational, first-order trainings are almost always a failure.”
The AP’s review identified at least 39 lawmakers who resigned or were expelled from office since January 2017 following sexual misconduct allegations and an additional 37 who faced other forms of repercussions, such as the loss of committee leadership positions. A few were cleared. Investigations are ongoing against others, such as Lucido. The list of 101 accused lawmakers includes at least one person from three-fourths of the states.
One of the most recent to be penalized was Wisconsin state Rep. Staush Gruszynski, who in December was removed from committee assignments and the Democratic caucus after an investigation determined he “verbally sexually harassed” a legislative employee at an offsite location after work hours. Gruszynski has rejected calls to resign.
The fact that sexual harassment complaints have continued mounting against lawmakers shows that the problem remains, but it also suggests that victims feel more confident in filing reports, said Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics.
“That’s a sign in some ways of the progress of having sort of a clearer, cleaner path that women can take if they have faced harassment,” she said, “and that will lead to people feeling that they empowered enough to step forward.”