CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming lawmaker said this week he thinks incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior by state legislators likely are underreported.
With resignations in state legislatures around the country related to inappropriate sexual behavior, the Wyoming Legislature is reviewing its current policies and trainings.
The Legislative Service Office, or LSO, formed a team recently to meet with interested parties and look at antidiscrimination and sexual harassment issues. LSO Director Matt Obrecht sent a memo to the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council, advising members they should be on-guard for underreporting of discriminatory and harassing incidents by taking a proactive approach.
Currently, all 90 members of the Legislature undergo antidiscrimination and sexual harassment training every two years, the most recent occurring in January before the 2017 general session. However, Obrecht told the Management Council – which includes Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper – during its Tuesday meeting in Cheyenne that the current training is presented by the state’s executive branch and is generally not tailored to the legislative branch, except in its discussion of policy.
“I think we can improve on that,” Obrecht said.
A DIFFERENT TIME
There have been six reports of sexually inappropriate actions or comments by legislators since 2008, to the best of LSO’s knowledge, Obrecht said. All of the complaints are against men in regard to their behavior toward women. Five complaints were made by women and one by a man. Three complaints of sexually inappropriate behavior by lawmakers were made in the last two years.
Obrecht said he doesn’t think the Wyoming Legislature’s culture is replete with inappropriate behavior.
But he said he does believe there have been incidents of inappropriate behavior prior to this year that went unreported.
“I believe in this atmosphere – and rightly so – we’ll receive reports that will require action,” he said.
Since 2008, Obrecht told the Associated Press that no legislators have been expelled or resigned following complaints, and no accusations have resulted in secret hush payments. Again, this was to the best of LSO’s knowledge.
The reports remain confidential unless there has been a probable cause determination under the Legislature’s rule dealing with misconduct.
Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said inappropriate sexual actions by Wyoming lawmakers do happen. And many times, he said those affected by the behaviors don’t know what to do to call them out. The actual number of incidents, as a result, is likely much higher, Peterson said.
“That number of six since 2008 could probably triple and be more accurate,” he said. “Sadly enough, it’s pretty commonplace. It’s a sad assessment.”
Legislative leadership, Peterson said, should have zero tolerance for such behavior, especially in light of what’s going on nationally. Looking at the policies now is more than appropriate, he said.
“It’s long overdue,” Peterson said.
Bebout said leadership is serious about taking on deviant sexual behavior among lawmakers. Moving forward with updating policies and training is something he said he supports. Where warranted, Bebout said rules should go beyond state and federal law.
“When we do this, if we move ahead – and I hope we do move ahead with this – you might tell us if this particular rule or policy goes beyond federal law, because I think we need to know that,” Bebout told LSO staff. “We can make a conscious decision to do it. Certainly we have to comply with applicable laws, but, certainly, we may want to go further in some cases.”
Bebout has been in various leadership positions through the years, including House speaker in 1999 and 2000.
In that time, he said things were brought to his attention, but he had to maintain confidentiality with regard to specifics. When it comes to accusations, Bebout said it’s important to let processes play out before assuming guilt. But he said it’s always something he and his colleagues have taken seriously.
“We’ve followed the law and tried to deal with them the best way we knew how,” Bebout said.
So while he’s seen accusations come forward in his 25 years in the Legislature, Bebout said inappropriate sexual actions – and other forms of corruption – were never pervasive.
“Wyoming can hold its head high,” he said.
NEW YEAR, NEW APPROACH
In the Wyoming Legislature’s rules, sexual harassment means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
There’s a two-track process when a complaint is made against a legislator, Obrecht said.
First, the report is handled under a Management Council policy – which provides for confidentiality – where he said leadership talks with the accused to determine whether he or she would dispute the claim or admit the inappropriate behavior occurred. On that track, it’s agreed by all parties the behavior was inappropriate and that it must not occur again, and leadership has authority to require other forms of corrective action.
If the complaint is more egregious – delving into sexual assault or a pattern of behavior – the accused would be handled under the House and Senate’s joint rule on misconduct violations, Obrecht said.
Under that rule, the Legislature has the full gamut of disciplinary action if a complaint holds water, including expulsion. If a subcommittee of Management Council members makes a probable cause determination, an investigative committee is appointed from the chamber of the accused to make a finding whether misconduct happened. That goes to the House or Senate – in whichever the accused works- to decide on the disciplinary action. A two-thirds vote is required for expulsion.
In Obrecht’s view, that rule – called Rule 22-1 – was not drafted to handle a sexual harassment claim. However, he said some forms of sexual harassment – and especially sexual assault – would constitute legislative misconduct under the rule.
Obrecht said he thought around 80 percent of the time, complaints would center on what would be considered harassment, such as an inappropriate comment. That’s why he said he thinks it’s important to outline a separate policy from that rule to address actions such as comments.
“It’s not that those aren’t hurtful or aren’t inappropriate, but I don’t think one comment should trigger a 22-1 investigation,” Obrecht said.
The Management Council policy on antidiscrimination and sexual harassment was adopted 15 years ago. To make the approach more proactive, LSO is recommending a number of revisions:
– Create two separate policies to recognize differences between workplace setting, legislative setting or public setting
– Specify a reporting mechanism for third parties
– Establish a presiding officer with the ability to require additional training for members facing substantiated complaints when it’s determined more severe discipline is not warranted
– Designate an individual or office to maintain documentation of reports so they are not lost when LSO staff and legislative membership changes
– Provide a process for outside investigation when a complaint is filed against an LSO director or presiding officer
When it comes to trainings, Obrecht recommended making it required for all members annually instead of biannually and making it specific to the legislative setting. He also called on legislative leadership to take on a more prominent role in trainings, establishing authority among membership.
“We need buy-in from leadership,” Obrecht said. “I can get up there and say whatever I usually say – and I probably should on the new policy – but it’s so much more forceful coming from you and what the consequences will be.”
Bebout said Obrecht could count him in.
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com