N.C. General Assembly not immune to sexual harassment concerns

By Lauren Horsch, NCInsider.com

RALEIGH — Women who work in North Carolina politics have known for years that it’s still a boy’s club, even as nearly a quarter of the members of the General Assembly are women. They know this because they’re often dodging unwanted touches and brushing off or ignoring inappropriate comments about their appearance. Their stories are similar to many reported in state legislatures across the country, and those in Washington D.C.

One lobbyist who spoke to The Insider on the condition of anonymity said the vast majority of male lawmakers are respectful, but of the 170 House and Senate members, she said she could pinpoint at least eight who harassed either her or another lobbyist. “I think of the eight that are doing it, they’re doing it every day,” she said.

The harassment can be anything from inappropriate compliments to kissing female — and male — lobbyists on the cheek or forehead. One woman who spoke to the Insider said she once had to dodge a kiss from a lawmaker outside of the golden chamber doors by turning her head so he kissed her cheek, instead of her lips.

The Insider contacted half a dozen female lawmakers to discuss sexual harassment in the General Assembly. Only two responded and they said they didn’t have anything to talk about. The Insider also contacted five female lobbyists to discuss sexual harassment, and three agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from lawmakers. They also declined to name any lawmakers who they say harassed them.

Dealing with sexual assault in the General Assembly can be difficult for lobbyists. While they work inside the General Assembly, they do not work for the state, and thus don’t have an easy way to report any harassment. Some feel there is little they could do to report anything that happens, but rules outlined by the Legislative Ethics Committee allow anyone who has experienced harassment from a lawmaker to file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission, which would then be investigated.

RELATED: N.C. agencies to review sexual harassment policies

However, a complaint cannot be filed anonymously, and must be signed and notarized before it can be sent to the co-chairs of the Legislative Ethics Committee. In recent years, the committee has heard fewer than a dozen complaints, and because complaints filed with the committee are confidential, it is not known how many — if any — were of a sexual nature. Staff members who file a complaint can also file one with the General Assembly human resources department. A complaint filed with the LEC could be made public under certain circumstances, including if a hearing is held or if the legislator accused asks that the complaint, response and any finding be made public.

The Legislative Ethics Committee is chaired by two Republicans — Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, and Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover. While its chairmen are Republicans, the board itself is an even split between the two parties. Since 2007, only 17 complaints have been filed. Including some complaints held over from other years, there have been 19 complaints dismissed, and only two complaints with action — either a private admonishment or a referral to the House or Senate to be dealt with. In general, if the committee finds that the evidence substantiates the complaint, it can issue a public or private admonishment to the accused lawmaker. It can also refer the matter to the attorney general for investigation and to the district attorney for any possible prosecution if it is criminal in nature. The complaint can also be handled by either chamber of the General Assembly.

The New York State Assembly, unlike the N.C. General Assembly, has an independent counsel and a neutral investigator for sexual harassment — which means the investigator isn’t part of the politics of the governing body. The independent counsel can then report to the eight-member, bipartisan ethics committee about his or her findings and the committee can decide on whether to have a hearing. Every assembly member and supervisor is also a “mandatory reporter,” which means if they hear or see harassment, they’re required to report it. All members are required to have sexual harassment training every two years. In Colorado, complaints are handled confidentially, but its policy covers everyone working at the legislature, including lobbyists, journalists and government staff, not just lawmakers.

The South Carolina House has strengthened its sexual harassment policy in order to make it easier for victims to come forward with complaints, and new member orientation includes a 45-minute talk on harassment. The South Carolina Senate has no written sexual harassment policy. And in Minnesota, the sexual harassment policy for the state Senate hadn’t been updated since 1990 when allegations against sitting lawmakers arose this fall. The Minnesota House’s policy was updated in 2004. Both policies call for chamber leadership to help resolve any allegations against current members.

Only one lawmaker in recent decades has been officially disciplined by a chamber of the General Assembly because of allegations of sexual harassment. Ken Miller, a Republican House member, was censured in 1996 after he allegedly licked a page’s hand. Pages are high school students who are in the legislature for a week helping the flow of business during the legislative session. Miller was also accused of improper advances toward a legislative employee and a lobbyist. After a House Ethics Committee investigation, members voted to censure him. Miller was the lone vote against his censure. He lost his re-election bid the week before the censure vote, thus losing his seat in the General Assembly.

Since then, no lawmaker has had to face a public censure. Miller, however, isn’t the only lawmaker to get in hot water for inappropriate behavior. Others have quietly, or not so quietly, been asked to resign. In 2009, Rep. Cary Allred was pressed to resign after he hugged a female page after he’d been drinking before a floor session.

Another lobbyist who talked to The Insider said the environment has changed over the years — thanks to ethics rules — but there are still lingering concerns about how female lobbyists are treated. The lobbyist said she’s not only had to deal with inappropriate behavior from lawmakers, but male lobbyists as well.

Male lobbyists can also to make inappropriate comments to their female colleagues, and that too leads to a blurred line because not all lobbyists work for the same firm, which means there isn’t a mechanism to report harassment between two different firms. A female lobbyist could report a colleague who works at the same firm has her, but might not be able to report a lobbyist from another firm.

The relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists is a lot of give and take. Lobbyists need lawmakers to help pass their bills, but lawmakers also need the lobbyists to help answer industry questions because lawmakers can’t be experts on every policy subject. It’s a relationship that needs some form of trust.

“I’ve just never done anything, because ultimately it will get back (to you),” one of the lobbyists told The Insider. “You’re basically dealing with a person in a position of power, so unless you’re in a position where you just don’t give a flip, you still have to do business in that building.”

The unique work environment makes sexual harassment almost non-reportable unless there is hard evidence like DNA or text messages. One of the lobbyists who spoke to The Insider said she helps younger lobbyists navigate the culture of sexual harassment by giving them warnings about who to avoid. Female lobbyists will often employ the “buddy system” — bringing another lobbyist with them to a meeting, or having a male colleague go in their place. Some women even avoid going on the elevator alone with certain lawmakers.

One of the women who spoke to The Insider said her male colleagues stepped up and went in her place when they realized she wouldn’t go to meetings with a certain male lawmaker because of his behavior. She said in some cases, other male colleagues have said she should be the one to take those meetings with lawmakers because she would get hit on — possibly boosting the firm’s legislative agenda in the process.

Women in the General Assembly — lobbyists and staffers — have a whisper network to tell newcomers about what to expect and who to avoid. It’s not a secret, but even then, women don’t feel empowered to come forward. One of the lobbyists who spoke to The Insider said she tells other women not to report any harassment because they often won’t have proof.

“(The lawmakers) who do cross the line, it is mostly well-meaning and well-intended, and they don’t think they’re committing any sort of harassment,” one of the lobbyists interviewed told The Insider. “But if you ask any HR professional they’d consider it harassment.”

“Some of (the behavior), I’ve been desensitized to it,” one of the female lobbyists told The Insider. Once, during an event receiving line, a Republican male House member kissed her on the cheek, she said. “Was it crossing the line? Probably, but I knew he didn’t mean anything by it.”

However, she said two Democratic female lawmakers standing with her at the event were outraged. “I’m like, ‘Oh that I knew was totally innocent, you missed your colleague from the House, who just walked through here and grabbed my ass. … He had a terrible reputation for doing that and he was in a very powerful position. They would be very quick to get on their high horse and judge,” the lobbyist said. “But would they do the same thing if it was one of their own?”

Though the culture of sexual harassment still remains, women who talked to The Insider said it has gotten better over the past few years for various reasons — including stricter ethics laws and lawmakers not wanting to lose elections because of their behavior. The changes meant that frequent social events like lobbyists taking lawmakers out to dinner or drinks were no longer allowed. Those dinner meetings, in some cases, could lead to situations where lawmakers and lobbyists would be subjected to unwanted sexual advances or harassment. Even now, some lobbyists limit the amount of alcohol they drink at events to avoid putting themselves at risk.

Allegations of sexual harassment in politics across the country have prompted female lawmakers to call for new and updated harassment policies. More than 170 women who either work or have worked in the Washington statehouse signed a letter urging lawmakers to update and overhaul the sexual harassment policy. They called for a zero-tolerance policy. The letter includes signatures from current lawmakers. In the Kansas legislature, there are calls to also look at the sexual harassment policy, which doesn’t stop lawmakers from pursuing romantic relationships with interns.

In North Carolina, there is an Legislative Ethics Committee rule concerning harassment of all kinds — including sexual harassment. The policy says that it’s the “responsibility of each legislator to create and maintain a work environment at the General Assembly in which all legislators and employees are free from workplace harassment and are treated respectfully.”

The policy specifically calls out harassment based on race, sex, creed, religion, national origin, age, color and disability, and says any such harassment “may be unlawful, discredits the integrity of the General Assembly, and is unethical conduct.” This applies to work inside the legislative buildings and those at events or outings that involves legislative business outside of the legislative grounds. The policy also addresses retaliation against someone who files or gives information to a harassment complaint.

So, what is defined as sexual harassment by the LEC? Unwelcome sexual advances. Requests for sexual favors. Graphic and offensive comments about someone’s body or attire. Verbal abuse of a sexual nature. Touching of a sexual nature. Sexually degrading words used to describe a person. Disseminating sexually suggestive objects or pictures. And “any threat or insinuation that a person’s refusal to submit to a sexual advance will adversely affect that person’s employment evaluation, wages, duties, work shifts or any other condition of employment or business before the General Assembly.”

The North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association requires members to sign a “Code of Conduct,” and routinely promotes ethics training for its members. Elizabeth Robinson, a lobbyist and president of the NCPLA, said in an email to the Insider that since there has been heightened awareness around important issues like sexual harassment, the NCPLA is considering “more focused education events,” which will be discussed at the group’s first board meeting in 2018.

If an NCPLA member lobbyist sought to make a complaint against another member, the “Code of Conduct” they sign provides for a member to submit a written and signed complaint that alleges a violation of the code. The NCPLA is a professional group, and thus can’t revoke someone’s lobbying registration, but if a member of the group were to be found in violation of the code of conduct, he or she could be reprimanded by the association or lose his or her membership. Robinson said that if a member of the NCPLA had to file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission, the association would help guide that member through the process.

It’s unclear if any policies are being revised by General Assembly leaders since the news of sexual harassment at other state legislatures broke. Questions concerning sexual harassment policies sent to representatives for both House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger were referred to Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble — who is not an elected official — since he oversees those policies in conjunction with the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Coble said the General Assembly doesn’t conduct annual training concerning sexual harassment, but it’s addressed during new employee orientation meetings. “Our HR department is in the process of reviewing a training program that we would like to introduce in early 2018,” Coble wrote in an email to The Insider. “Due to the number of incidents reported in media recently, we are taking this issue very seriously as we wish to protect our employees and provide a healthy and safe work environment.”

House, Senate and other legislative staff members are given the “Unlawful Workplace Harassment Policy” in their personnel manual. It states that “No NC General Assembly employee may engage in unlawful workplace harassment or retaliate against employees who report or oppose unlawful workplace harassment. All employees are guaranteed the right to work in an environment free from unlawful workplace harassment and retaliation.”

Legislative employees can file complaints with either the House, Senate or Legislative Services Office. Depending on where the complaint is filed, there could be a two- or four-step process to have a complaint heard. The House and Senate follow a similar system, but legislative staff not working for either chamber have a four-step process which includes multiple discussions with supervisors and directors and the submission of written statements.

The staff members who work for the House and Senate have a two-step system that requires them to report the problem to an immediate supervisor within 30 calendar days of the incident and then meet with chamber leadership and provide written statements before leadership makes a final decision. If the individual filing a complaint goes through the whole four-step process, it could take 100 days or more to resolve. The two-step could take 20 or more days to resolve.

The General Assembly policy is similar to the one from the Office of State Human Resources. However, the OSHR policy was updated in 2014, and the NCGA one hasn’t been revised since 2006, according to the document provided by Coble. The OSHR policy allows for any “employee, former employee or applicant alleging unlawful workplace harassment or retaliation may file a complaint.”

While there are still some male lawmakers who act inappropriately, women who work in the General Assembly said a lot has changed since ethics rules were updated and that most of the lawmakers remain respectful. “(The majority of lawmakers) deserve a lot of credit,” one of the women told The Insider. “They treat young women like true professionals. … There are the few that would hit on you, the chunk that would not hit on you but wouldn’t treat you the same as a man, and than half of them that treat the young women and people with tremendous respect.”

Lawmakers aren’t in Raleigh to “behave as predators,” one of the women said. “They’re there to serve their constituents. I think the opportunities for misbehavior have decreased, and that’s put in place more professionalism.”

Lauren Horsch writes for NCInsider.com. Contact her at lhorsch@ncinsider.com or @LaurenHorsch.