House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe
Leaders of the Vermont legislature acknowledged Thursday that the Statehouse's sexual harassment policy is in need of revision, even as they sought to defend its near-total secrecy. Current policies on handling allegations of misbehavior by lawmakers are handled almost completely behind closed doors, with no public disclosure except in rare circumstances.
Speaking at a press conference in the Statehouse's Cedar Creek Room, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) acknowledged a changed atmosphere around sexual misconduct in recent months. Allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have opened the floodgates to revelations of inappropriate behavior by men in almost every walk of life.
"In light of all the allegations across the country, we’re really diving in and looking at how we can take our current policies and make them the gold standard," Johnson said.
Those policies appear to fall well short of the "gold standard." Think something more like tin, or possibly pig iron.
The inadequacy of House and Senate policies is highlighted in a case we never knew existed until Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld reported it last week. Last April, according to VPR,a complaint of inappropriate behavior was filed against a sitting state senator. It went through the process and was disposed of without ever being disclosed to the public. Even now, nothing more can be said.
"The policy was followed from beginning to end," said Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham), who chairs the Senate's sexual harassment panel and spoke to reporters after the press conference. "You can go back and read the policy, and that’s all that I can share at this point in terms of the details."
Nothing. What was alleged, who was accused, what decision was reached and what (if any) punishment was handed down — we don't know and, under Senate rules, we can't know. That seems a disservice to those who work in or visit the Statehouse, and to constituents who might unknowingly cast their votes for an abuser.
Even the leader of the Senate was in the dark until he heard the VPR report.
"I don’t know the specifics because I’m not on the panel," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). When WCAX-TV's Neal Goswami noted that it seems "remarkable" that Ashe wouldn't know about the case, the pro tem replied, "I think you’re trying to create a bit of a controversy ... Should the leader of the Senate have a different right than other members?"
Is that really the question to be asking here? How about, "Shouldn't the leader of the Senate be informed when one of its members is a sexual harasser?" Or, "Shouldn't he bear responsibility for ensuring the offense is not repeated?"
Balint noted that there's been a "sea change" since the legislature adjourned last spring. She said she and Rep. Mollie Burke (P/D-Brattleboro), chair of the House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel, have "met frequently since the Harvey Weinstein scandal blew up ... We do see some holes in the policy." They are considering changes that may include establishing a joint House/Senate panel instead of having separate bodies with separate rules and standards, including non-lawmakers on the panel or panels, and adding more transparency to the process. "We’ll meet first thing in January, and we’re going to talk about all these issues," Balint said.
Balint and Johnson each recounted, in very general terms, their own encounters with harassment under the Golden Dome. "I’ve been in very uncomfortable situations," said Johnson. "I’ve been in situations where I’ve sought legal advice. I have a really personal interest in making sure that everybody feels safe and welcome and feel like they can give their best here."
The Senate's sexual harassment policy outlines a long and winding process that seems designed to avoid exposure of any kind to anyone — even the guilty. If the panel holds any hearings or takes testimony, it's all behind closed doors. If it finds a violation has occurred, the sexual harassment panel's first option is to seek "a mutually agreed to resolution with the Respondent and the Complainant," which would not be subject to disclosure.
If the senator refuses to agree, the matter would go to the Senate Rules Committee, which would "determine the appropriate course of action." If the Rules Committee so determined, the case would go to the full Senate — and only then would there be any public disclosure. Obviously, the accused has ample reason and opportunity to avoid that eventuality.
As for the complaint filed in April, Balint said she could not even say whether the accusation was found to have merit, or whether there was any sanction against the accused.
It's more than a little sad that it took a series of national scandals for the legislature to rethink its policies. Especially since lawmakers just lived through the Norm McAllister experience, in which a sitting senator was arrested on the Statehouse grounds on charges of sexual assault — some of which involved an ongoing relationship with a paid assistant who shared rental housing in Montpelier with McAllister and two fellow lawmakers. (McAllister was subsequently suspended from the Senate, convicted on one misdemeanor charge and acquitted on others.)
Even now, it remains to be seen how seriously the House and Senate will take this issue. Lawmakers have a long and ignominious history of thinking of themselves first when deciding on self-regulatory issues — not only sexual harassment, but also ethics, conflicts of interest and personal finances.
Perhaps this scandal will force lawmakers to rethink their approach to all of these issues, and do it before the horse has escaped the barn.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.