Sexual harassment report urges action

Nearly five years after complaint ‘there is nothing that has changed’

On Friday, the Iowa Republicans shared a four-page report by Mary Kramer, which included specific recommendations “for achieving the goal of creating and maintaining a safe, respectful and professional workplace in the Iowa Senate.”

Kramer, a former Republican lawmaker, U.S. ambassador and human resource professional, was asked by GOP leadership to prepare the report after a wrongful termination lawsuit was successfully brought against the state, placing taxpayers on the hook for $1.75 million.

Although Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, has yet to acknowledge or express remorse for it, a court ruled GOP leadership retaliated against a female employee by terminating her employment hours after she had submitted a formal complaint of sexual harassment. Court documents, as well an internal investigation later conducted by Senate Republicans, revealed a tawdry workplace rife with harassment and ongoing fear of retaliation.

The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.
The State Capitol dome is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Because this is the Iowa Statehouse, a public-sector workplace, the toxic culture reached beyond the adults and teenagers who draw a state salary. Lobbyists, advocacy group members, everyday Iowans hoping to spur policy discussion and an untold number of other Statehouse visitors have been the punch line of foul jokes and the target of inappropriate behavior — often by elected officials, most of whom have had their privacy protected.

Although it has been more than four years since Republican leadership received a formal complaint of sexual harassment (2013), and months since the court case ended (July 2017) and was subsequently settled (Oct. 2017), the only people held accountable to date have been the Iowa taxpayers forced to pay the bill.

That would be rock bottom, the place Kramer was tasked to begin. And, to her credit, she seemed to realize it.

“As of now, there is nothing that has changed to prevent additional inappropriate behavior and ensuing problems,” she wrote while stressing the urgency of her recommendations. The report is embedded below.

While I’m not convinced of the effectiveness of traditional sexual harassment prevention training, I believe Kramer’s recommendations are thoughtful and sincere. Speak privately to former (and current) Statehouse dwellers to learn about similar past attempts. Iowans, unfortunately, are disturbingly aware of those programs’ shortcomings.

I’m even more dubious about reporting policies that include elected officials, which Kramer recommends.

Statehouse Republicans announced this week that a human resources director was hired and will start work on Jan. 22. If this is a truly independent position — kept outside of politics and maintained regardless of what party has a Legislative majority — the office could become a safe haven for those afraid to report abuses, and a trustworthy investigative agency.

If there is only one lesson to be learned from the most recent fiasco, it must be that any complaint and investigation handled within a party caucus will be tainted by politics. Party loyalty repeatedly trumps accountability and transparency, and the serious nature of sexual harassment in the public sector requires both.

Just as lawmakers and state employees deserve fair and impartial investigations into complaints against them, private-sector employees must be assured politics will play no role in determinations stemming from a claim of harassment. Here in first-in-the-nation Iowa, access to government and government officials is rightfully expected, and our state functions best when more people invest in the process. For those reasons, any barrier between the people and the People’s House must be placed with an overabundance of caution.

Kramer recognizes — and sometimes laments — the difficulty in creating and enforcing consistent policies in a place that encompasses state-paid staff members, publicly elected representatives, private-sector employees, nonprofit workers and visitors of all ages and from all walks of life.

It’s a daunting task; not an impossible one. But, as the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem, and some lawmakers aren’t yet there.

This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally published on The Gazette website on Jan. 13, 2018. Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette