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RELEASE: Legislators propose new procedures in wake of Capitol sexual harassment allegations

Monday, December 11, 2017

ST. PAUL – Monday morning, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced a series of proposed changes to the rules of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the wake of recent reports of sexual harassment in and around the State Capitol. The new rules, proposed by Rep. John Lesch (DFL – St. Paul) and Rep. Marion O’Neill (R – Maple Lake), include an expedited investigation process once complaints are brought forward, confidentiality protections for complainants as well as due process protections for all parties involved.

“It’s clear the current mechanisms to address this behavior aren’t sufficient to ensure legislators, staff, lobbyists and others can carry out their duties in an environment free from harmful behaviors,” Rep. Lesch said. “No one should come to the Capitol fearing potential harassment, but in addressing alleged actions of elected officials, there are unique circumstances in play. We need a fast-track process avoiding the inevitable accusation that these matters get buried to save members’ embarrassment.”

“There are two changes we are proposing here that are very important,” said Rep. O’Neill. “First, opening up the House Ethics Committee process to staff and lobbyists that call the House of Representatives their workplace. Second, strengthening due process for those accused so justice is served for all involved. The last thing I want to see is a false accusation of sexual harassment becoming a political weapon. False accusations just create a toxic environment for those of us who have suffered real and serious sexual harassment to tell our stories and be believed.”

Currently, any two members can bring a complaint for consideration to the House Ethics Committee. Under the Lesch/O’Neill proposal, a complaint regarding sexual harassment or discrimination could be made by any House member, member of the public, lobbyist, or executive branch official. In recent weeks, complaints regarding inappropriate conduct of legislators have been brought by staff members, lobbyists and a candidate for office, and the only official option for such individuals to seek accountability through the Legislature involves an Ethics Committee process with no guarantees of progress or results. The Lesch-O’Neill proposal sets timelines, standards, and outcomes.

Filing of a written complaint, with specific factual evidence listed, would be required with both the House Majority Leader and Minority Leader. The complaint can initially be lodged anonymously, but would be under oath. The two leaders would sign off on the complaint – and under existing ethics framework would serve as the official complainants – and would be required to deliver a copy of the complaint to any member named in the complaint, but the complainant’s information would remain private, and any unauthorized disclosure of the complainant would subject a leaker to Chapter 13 penalties. The complaint would remain nonpublic until the Ethics Committee determines probable cause exists.

Within seven days, the complaint must be referred to the Ethics Committee. Other steps of the new complaint process include the following:

  • A probable cause hearing must be held by the House Ethics Committee no later than 30 days from the filing of the complaint. This hearing will be nonpublic to respect the complainant’s privacy.
  • An outside employment law attorney or consultant will be retained to investigate the complaint and submit a report to the Ethics Committee by the date of the probable cause hearing.
  • A contested hearing on the merits of the accusations must be held no later than 60 days after the probable cause hearing, unless the accused waives his or her right to such a hearing by way of an admission meeting the satisfaction of the complainants. This hearing will be public.
  • A disposition and ruling must be filed by the Chair of the Ethics Committee no later than 90 days after receiving the complaint.
  • Both the accuser and the accused may be reimbursed by the House for reasonable attorney costs.

Under the proposal, the Ethics Committee is also directed to develop specific due process requirements for complaints regarding sexual harassment and discrimination. A complaint of a confidentiality breach by a member or employee would also be subject to disciplinary action by the Ethics Committee.

A copy of the proposed rule changes is attached. Reps. Lesch and O’Neill plan to offer the rules amendment when the 2018 legislative session convenes on February 20.