Report seeks changes in handling of state House misconduct claims

Associated Press
Published: 3/1/2018 9:10:31 PM

BOSTON — The Massachusetts House should adopt a revamped set of procedures for handling allegations of sexual harassment involving lawmakers and staff, with a focus on guaranteeing confidentiality for those fearing retaliation if they lodge complaints against powerful members of the Legislature, a report recommended Thursday.

Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo had ordered House Counsel James Kennedy to review how the House investigates and acts on complaints following an October column in The Boston Globe that detailed several alleged cases, including one in which a female lobbyist said an unidentified legislator strongly implied he’d vote for a bill in exchange for sex.

The House report did not delve into specific allegations or provide details on how past complaints were resolved, concentrating instead on creating a more expansive system for investigating future complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct.

The report also recommends writing a new anti-harassment policy and mandatory annual training for all House lawmakers, staff and interns; standardizing employment procedures; and launching a multi-year survey to gauge the prevalence of sexual harassment and the willingness of individuals to report it.

“I would say first and foremost we take it seriously and we will thoroughly investigate any complaint of sexual harassment in the House of Representatives,” Kennedy told reporters after briefing lawmakers on the report behind closed doors.

The House has 160 elected members and about 480 employees, more than half of whom are female and more than half under the age of 35.

Key recommendations include a shake-up in the human resources office and hiring of an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, a new and autonomous position empowered to evaluate all complaints, including those made by outside parties such as lobbyists or policy advocates, and determine if they warrant further investigation.

Under current procedures, complaints lodged against lawmakers can only be investigated internally by the House Ethics Committee, increasing the likelihood that identities of alleged victims would become known to other lawmakers and perhaps the general public.

“We believe that the lack of confidentially has actually been a barrier to people bringing forward complaints and the House being able to act on them,” said former state Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of several outside lawyers retained by the House to help conduct the review.

The recommendations balance confidentiality with fairness for those accused, she added.

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer could impose limited sanctions or “remedial action” to privately resolve less serious complaints against legislators, any recommendations for harsher penalties such as censure or expulsion must under the state constitution go back to the House for approval. The report calls for a Special Committee on Professional Conduct to deal with complaints of harassment, discrimination or workplace bullying, while the ethics committee’s scope would be narrowed primarily to conflict of interest matters.

DeLeo praised the report while acknowledging there is no “fail safe” system for assuring that sexual harassment complaints will never be swept under the rug, adding he was hopeful people would “feel more comfortable about whether they come forward and that their complaints will be kept confidential.”

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