BISMARCK, N.D. — After the North Dakota House voted to expel a lawmaker accused of a long pattern of sexually harassing women at the Capitol, attention has turned to a policy that was intended to protect against harassment but may have actually made it harder to stop it.
Legislative leaders vowed Friday to overhaul the policy crafted less than three years ago regarding workplace and sexual harassment at the Capitol, with an eye toward removing a requirement that eventually could make a victim’s identity public, which may have kept some women from coming forward.
“Obviously, there is some grey areas that need to be filled in,” said Chet Pollert, the House Majority leader. “We will begin discussions to see what needs to be done.”
The House voted Thursday to expel Rep. Luke Simons, a Republican from Dickinson, North Dakota, over sexual harassment allegations they said stretched back to soon after he took office in 2017. The expulsion came with strong support from Simons’ own party, which holds a supermajority in the chamber.
At least 105 state lawmakers across the U.S. have faced sexual harassment or misconduct allegations since the start of 2017. Forty, including Simons, have resigned or been expelled from office, according to an Associated Press tally. Many who remained in office faced other repercussions, including the loss of legislative leadership positions or committee assignments. Most of the allegations were made public after the #MeToo movement gained momentum in fall 2017.
North Dakota lawmakers in 2018 decided to update the state’s two-paragraph policy following a wave of complaints in the national political and entertainment worlds amid the #MeToo movement. Until then, state policy said sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, but there was no process spelled out for reporting complaints.
Legislative leaders said at the time they weren’t aware of any sexual harassment allegations at the Capitol but adopted the policy that called for a panel of lawmakers to review a complaint, rather than just the person who fielded it. The panel would include people selected by the majority and minority leaders of each chamber as well as a fifth person selected by the four appointed members. They also could send a case to an independent investigator.
Simons, 43, is accused of a pattern of sexually aggressive, lewd and threatening behaviour. Republican Rep. Emily O’Brien said his harassment was so pervasive that she switched desks to get away from him.
O’Brien told The Associated Press that she first reported alleged harassment by Simons in 2017— a year before the state’s policy was in place— to then-GOP House Majority Leader Al Carlson, who no longer serves in the Legislature.
Carlson said Friday that he doesn’t recall O’Brien’s report.
“I honestly don’t remember but if she says she did, she did,” Carlson said. “I have no documentation or anything about it. And I don’t remember talking to (Simons) about her.”
The nonpartisan Legislative Council, the Legislature’s research arm, has documented several allegations since then that Simons sexually harassed female staffers and interns at the Capitol.
Those allegations were released last month by the agency through public records requests, leading to Simons’ expulsion.
Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said none of the allegations were formally reported under the state’s new harassment policy. No other complaints have been filed under the new policy, he said.
Opponents of the Simons’ expulsion said the process was flawed and that he was not afforded due process. Pollert has said the process to expel Simons went “above and beyond what is legally required.”
Pollert said he met with Simons three times to discuss separate allegations of harassment. He said he was not aware of reports made to his predecessor.
Asserting that he won’t be held accountable for Simons’ actions, Pollert said he did his best to stop him from harassing others. Pollert also co-sponsored the resolution to expel Simons with Democratic House Minority Leader Josh Boschee.
“Could we have headed down a different avenue to stop this?” Pollert said. “Of course, we could.”
Boschee said Pollert’s handling of the non-formal harassment reports was proper.
“I would have done the same thing in his shoes,” Boschee said. “I think he did the best he could.”
Lynn Boughey, Simons’ attorney, said the Legislature could potentially face a lawsuit from Simons for not following its harassment policy.
“He was expelled based on the worst type of pure innuendo – through redacted, one-sided memos or emails containing secondhand information from anonymous persons,” Boughey said in a statement. “Instead of assigning a neutral investigator or a board of investigation as their own rules require, the North Dakota Legislature denied Rep. Simons the most basic due process rights.”
Boschee said several of the women who made allegations against Simons “did not want to be on the record” out of fear that they would be identified and further harassed.
Allowing victims to remain confidential is a start, he said.
“The process we have in place did not protect these women,” Boschee said. “We need to fix the process and get people more confident in the system. If we don’t use this as an opportunity to learn from, then it will be the biggest mistake we’ve made.”
James MacPherson, The Associated Press