In the Connecticut legislature, where hundreds work on a daily basis, there have been no formal sexual misconduct or harassment complaints over the past decade. Now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, legislators questioning whether the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy is strong enough are holding a hearing in hopes of finding the answer.
The hearing, scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday in the Legislative Office Building, was originally proposed by the legislature’s four caucus leaders and their chiefs of staff in the fall, as sex abuse and harassment scandals in Hollywood sparked national attention.
“We said, ‘What steps can we take as a legislature to improve our own policies?,’” said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, the highest-ranking female legislator in either party.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, the Office of Legislative Management and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities are slated to speak at the informational hearing Monday. The public is also invited to attend.
“I hope that we can be told from the people who really have an expertise in this field what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on,” Klarides said, “because no matter how good of a policy we have, and I’d say we have a fairly strong one based on the lack of complaints, it could always be improved.”
Christine Palm, who formerly trained state agencies in sexual harassment policy and now runs Sexual Harassment Prevention — a company that trains corporate, academic and nonprofit organizations — said lawmakers deserve credit for their willingness to look at and improve their own policies and that the initiative shows they have “a desire to clean up their own house.”
The lack of formal complaints does not necessarily indicate the policy is working, Palm said, “it indicates there’s a legitimate reason people don’t come forward.” What needs to be looked at is the reporting process and who is held accountable, she said.
“[At the legislature] you have an atmosphere of power,” said Palm. “You have lobbyists, interns, nonpartisan staff … that work with these powerful people.”
Earlier this year, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney and several other Democratic senators called for the legislature to consider updating the sexual harassment policy and hold hearings on the issue.
“The Connecticut General Assembly should be a place where strong protections are in place for everyone who enters the Capitol grounds,” Looney said Friday. “This public forum will provide an opportunity to hear from experts and examine our policies in order to make sure that they are in line with national best practices as well as receive input from legislators, staff and the public.”
In January, the Associated Press conducted a 50-state review that found almost all of the country’s legislative chambers had some type of sexual harassment policy, though they varied widely, and many were placing a greater emphasis on preventing and punishing sexual misconduct as they convened for their 2018 sessions.
A request by the AP for sexual harassment complaints from all 50 state legislatures over the last decade turned up only 70 complaints in two-dozen states. The AP also found that nearly $3 million was paid in settlements by eight states over the same time period. Most states told the AP that no complaints were filed, no tally was kept, or they were not legally required to disclose complaints.
“We try to do everything we can to create an environment free of sexual harassment,” said Jim Tamburro, human resources administrator for the Office of Legislative Management. “That’s our goal.”
While there have been no formal complaints, some legislators have faced consequences for apparently inappropriate actions.
In 2013, Rep. Ernest Hewett lost his role as deputy speaker of the House over a lewd comment he made to a 17-year-old Connecticut Science Center intern who testified at a public hearing about overcoming a fear of snakes. “If you’re bashful, I’ve got a snake sitting under my desk here,” Hewett said. Hewett was re-elected in 2014 but lost his seat in 2016.
Last month, several legislators called for Rep. Angel Arce’s resignation after The Courant published affectionate texts the 57-year-old grandfather had sent to a 16-year-girl in 2015. Arce resigned effective April 9.
The legislature last updated its sexual harassment policy in July 2014. In 2015, a law was passed that required the policy to cover interns.
Tamburro said that since 2000 all supervisors have been required to participate in sexual harassment training. Other employees always had the option to receive the training, but after the updates in 2014, training became mandatory for most employees.