Lawmakers, Experts Tout Bill to Crack Down on State House Sexual Harassment
By Josh Kurtz
Significant amendments are likely to be introduced in the next several days to legislation designed to police allegations of sexual harassment in and around the State House, key lawmakers said Monday.
Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), the chairwoman of the Legislative Women’s Caucus and chief sponsor of the measure, House Bill 1342, said in an interview that lawmakers are working with the State Ethics Commission to make sure that the panel, which is appointed by the governor and oversees lobbying activities, can launch independent investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and other personal wrongdoing by lobbyists.
Legislators are also seeking to strengthen language so that there isn’t a threshold of accusations required to trigger an independent probe, she said.
“I’m interested in making sure everyone has access to an independent investigator,” Kelly said.
The pending amendments follow a dramatic hearing on the legislation Monday afternoon in the House Rules Committee. During the session, top-ranking lawmakers listened in silence as their colleagues told personal stories of harassment, and lobbyists, lawyers and advocates expressed support for the bill and suggested ways of strengthening it.
State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who last week accused lobbyist Gilbert J. Genn of inappropriately touching her at a social event in Annapolis [see related story], sat in the hearing room.
The legislature has been roiled in recent days by public accusations of harassment against Genn, a former lawmaker, and Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery), both of whom have denied the allegations – and disputes over tactics within the women’s caucus.
Kelly said she hoped that if her colleagues focus on the “substantive” legislation that’s being advanced, some of the controversy of the past week can be diffused.
“I’ve always looked at this as a process issue,” she said. “It’s a process that’s been broken and needs to be fixed.”
Typically, harassment complaints are filed with the General Assembly’s human resources office or with the legislature’s presiding officers. Investigations and their aftermath have been kept confidential. But women lawmakers – and some men – are seeking stronger punishments and a more open process.
Without naming names, Kelly and Dels. Marice I. Morales (D-Montgomery) and Angela M. Angel (D-Prince George’s) each testified Monday that they had been groped and otherwise made extremely uncomfortable by predatory male legislators and other prominent State House figures. Each said they were hesitant to report the wrongdoing for fear of reprisals or getting a reputation for complaining.
“I can’t tell you how many times I had to call a colleague out,” said Morales, who added, “I’m a freshman legislator. Do I really want to start with this on my record?”
Angel recalled the long history of discrimination and misogyny in state government and called sexual harassment in the State House “a monster of our own creation that we have an opportunity and a duty to put down.”
She recounted with outrage an incident when a colleague fondled her in full public view.
“In the moment when I was inappropriately grabbed, no one said a word,” she said. “I knew I was the only protector I had in this institution.”
Sara Collina, an employment attorney and associate professor of gender studies at Georgetown University, said significant “risk factors” for sexual harassment are present in statehouses, just as they are on college campuses, including significant power disparities and the presence of lots of young people.
In an interview after the hearing, House Rules Chairwoman Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s) said she was not surprised that her colleagues did not ask questions during the hour-long hearing on the legislation.
“The testimony was complete,” she said. “People had done their homework.”
Asked whether she expected the committee – and the legislature – to act on Kelly’s legislation, Healey replied that she could only speak for herself.
“I think that we should do something,” she said. “I’m not completely sure of all the details. I think they made a compelling case that something needs to be done.”