Jonah Business Center

The Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne is serving as temporary housing for the Wyoming State Legislature as the historic capitol building is renovated. The Legislature is reexamining its policies on sexual harassment.

In 2002, the Legislature created its first policy barring sexual harassment, giving employees a formal mechanism to report inappropriate behavior.

But for six years, none did.

Not a single report or complaint was filed under the sexual harassment policy until 2008, according to records maintained by Legislative Service Office.

A second report was filed in 2010, and one more the next year. A four-year gap followed until a complaint was filed in 2016.

Three were submitted last year and in the first three weeks of 2018, two complaints have already been filed.

In other words, more complaints have been filed in the last 13 months than during the prior 15 years. Why?

“I don’t think there’s been a change in behavior,” said LSO director Matt Obrecht. “I think there’s been a change in awareness.”

Sen. R. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said last month that the number of complaints to LSO was likely far less than the actual number of inappropriate incidents that have occurred and “could probably triple and be more accurate.”

Now the Legislature’s leadership, represented by its Management Council, is seeking to rewrite the harassment policy, expanding the number of people who are covered by the policy and clarifying the investigative process.

Specifically, while the new policy has yet to be fully drafted, it will likely allow complaints from individuals like lobbyists who are not technically employees of the Legislature but who work with lawmakers on a regular basis. It will also outline what sanctions may be applied to someone found guilty of harassment, something that is relatively vague under the current policy.

Staying ahead?

Starting last fall, prominent figures in politics and media have been brought down by accusations of sexual assault. Some of these accusations had been open secrets, while others caught people off-guard. Suddenly it seemed no man was too powerful to face consequences for misbehavior.

One of the first major figures to fall was Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of sexual assault and rape by several women and quickly forced out of his own company. Television personality Matt Lauer, comedian Louis C.K. and U.S. Senator Al Fraken have all fallen from grace as a result of varied claims of sexual misconduct.

The phenomenon has not been restricted to celebrities or national figures, with 30 lawmakers in over one dozen states either resigning or facing sanctions for inappropriate sexual behavior, according to a review conducted by The Associated Press.

In California, scores of women have come forward with allegations of misconduct not just against lawmakers but against lobbyists as well. Similar scandals have cropped up in Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

At the Colorado Legislature’s opening day last month, protesters disrupted the festivities, angry over revelations late last year that several male lawmakers allegedly made unwanted sexual advances on their female colleagues.

The nature of the reports filed with Wyoming’s Legislature are unclear. The office declined to turn over any documents related to complaints in response to a public records request by the Star-Tribune, citing both a Management Council policy on confidentiality and several state statutes, including one that allows for secret communications between the LSO and lawmakers and a second that protects documents that include personal information about employees.

“The only documents that may be responsive to your request are documents kept by the LSO director in confidential files,” Legislative Counsel Torey Racines wrote in response to the records request.

But Obrecht, the LSO director, did release the total number of complaints and the years they were filed, as well as aggregate data on who filed the reports and who they were targeting. Three were filed by female employees of the Legislature, two by female legislative interns, one by a female lobbyist, one by a female lawmaker, one by a woman not directly affiliated with the Legislature and one by a male lawmaker on behalf of a female colleague.

Eight of the complaints concerned male lawmakers and one was filed against a male employee of the Legislature.

Broader policy proposed

Obrecht, who has been director since 2016, is spearheading the effort to overhaul the Legislature’s harassment policy. Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, have strongly supported Obrecht’s efforts.

Bebout said it is important to ensure that the Legislature stays ahead of any potential problems, though he said Wyoming is unique and does not have a culture of sexual harassment in state government or elsewhere.

“It’s just not that pervasive in Wyoming,” Bebout said. “I don’t think it’s a big issue in our state but it’s something we want to take very seriously.”

Bebout said he had not spent much time considering why sexual harassment might not be very common in the Cowboy State, but speculated that the state’s small population may help enforce good behavior by making things more personal.

The lawmaker, who has served in the Legislature since the late 1980s, also acknowledged that comments or behavior that he might not recognize as inappropriate could be alarming to others.

“Maybe I wouldn’t elevate it to that level but maybe the person on the other end of it does,” Bebout said. “I respect that.”

The changes being proposed to the sexual harassment policy don’t broaden the definition of sexual harassment so much as they expand who is covered by it and how reports are investigated.

Currently, the policy technically only covers legislative employees. That means if a lobbyist, or even a member of the public attending events at the capitol, feels harassed by a lawmaker there is no way to formally file a complaint.

Obrecht said the LSO has received reports from one lobbyist in the past, as a well as a woman “not directly participating in the legislative process,” but that expanding the policy to formally allow for such complaints would be helpful.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Notable proposed changes include:

  • Breaking the existing policy in two, one to cover harassment in a “workplace” or legislative setting and one for harassment in a public setting;
  • creating a reporting mechanism for “third parties,” meaning primarily lobbyists and members of the executive branch who work closely with lawmakers but may not know how to report harassment;
  • creating a process for outside investigation of a complaint, in case the LSO director or leaders of the Legislature have a conflict of interest when looking into a report of harassment;
  • specifying what types of “corrective action” can be taken if a complaint of harassment is found to be true.

Training evaluated

Obrecht has also suggested changes to the anti-discrimination training currently provided to lawmakers before each full session, which is every other year.

During the training, the personnel section of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office talks with legislators, legislative staff and interns on the Management Council’s anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policy. The section has been providing the training for many years, said Assistant Attorney General Van Snow, likely since the council created the policy nearly 20 years ago. The office doesn’t generally provide similar training to other groups.

The one-hour training includes a Powerpoint presentation on workplace discrimination and a video by Kantola Training Solutions entitled “Sexual Harassment: A Commonsense Approach,” Snow said. Officials also talk about case law, including the Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court decision that found sexual harassment was a violation of that act.

But the training doesn’t specifically address harassment or discrimination in the context of a state legislature, and Obrecht said that LSO has already taken steps to improve the instruction. The training will now take place on an annual basis, meaning before both full sessions and the shorter budget sessions, and this year an attorney from the Texas Legislature who has worked on preventing harassment within governmental entities will be flown in.

Another suggested change to the trainings presented in a memo to Management Council in December includes direct participation by legislative leaders like Bebout and Harshman.

While the leadership was generally in favor of the proposed changes, Obrecht said that they asked for input from stakeholders, including lobbyists and the executive branch, before formally approving a new policy.

Jody Levin, president of the Capitol Club, an organization of Cheyenne lobbyists, said her group had been contacted about the proposed changes and was currently evaluating them. She said that explicitly covering lobbyists under the harassment policy was an important step, but that regardless of any changes, the power dynamic at the Legislature may make lobbyists reluctant to file complaints regardless of what the policy is.

“It puts them in a very difficult position if they raise a complaint, because ultimately they still have to do their job and they worry about any type of retaliation,” Levin said. She hopes that, at a minimum, improving the policy will lead to more awareness about the issue and that in itself may cut down on instances of harassment.

The Management Council meets once more before the budget session begins in February, and changes to the harassment policy are on the agenda.

“We want to set an example of the 21st century workplace,” Harshman said.

Staff writer Elise Schmelzer contributed to this report

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments