Most US legislatures keep no public sexual harassment records
The majority of state legislatures have no publicly available records of any sexual misconduct claims over the past decade. Lawmakers say a failure to confront the problem causes victims to hesitate from coming forward.
Jefferson City, Mo.—Over the past 15 months, dozens of state lawmakers across the nation have been forced from office, removed from leadership roles, reprimanded, or publicly accused of sexual misconduct in a mounting backlash against misbehavior by those in power.
Yet the majority of state legislative chambers have no publicly available records of any sexual misconduct claims over the past decade. They say no complaints were made, no tally was kept, or they don't legally have to disclose it, The Associated Press found.
Some lawmakers and experts on sexual wrongdoing in the workplace say that suggests politicians are not taking the problem seriously.
"There is no good excuse for not making that information available," said state Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R) of Illinois. "If the voters don't know these things are going on, then they can't very well make a judgment about our behavior."
The AP filed records requests with the legislative chambers in every state – 99 in all – seeking information on the number of sexual misconduct or harassment complaints made against lawmakers since 2008. The requests also asked for any documents pertaining to those complaints and any financial settlements.
That process unearthed roughly 70 complaints from about two dozen states and nearly $3 million in sexual harassment settlements paid by eight states. But the actual figures are almost certainly are higher.
That's because many states that refused to turn over any information had legislators who had been publicly accused and forced out of office or leadership positions.
Some lawmakers and experts say that because of legislatures' failure to confront the problem aggressively, victims hesitate to come forward for fear of ridicule, isolation, and retaliation.
"When you add the pressure of politics and the fact that relationships are everything in politics, it is extremely unusual to imagine anyone ever reporting," said Maryland Delegate Ariana Kelly, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature's 60-member women's caucus.
She said she was warned when she entered office eight years ago "that I was going to be a pariah if I didn't learn to accept the culture the way it was."
The 188-member Maryland General Assembly said it has no records of the number of sexual harassment complaints over the past decade but plans to begin keeping track. Earlier this week, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Delegate Kelly that will strengthen its policies on harassment reporting to include an independent investigator and to cover lobbyists.
The Texas House and Senate, which have 181 lawmakers combined, also reported no records of complaints. But that doesn't mean there's no problem with harassment, said former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, who now runs the Austin-based women's advocacy group Deeds Not Words.
She recalls being touched "very inappropriately" by a newly elected House member at a 2009 social gathering for lawmakers. She never filed a complaint and wasn't even aware there was a process for doing so. Instead, state Senator Davis worked with colleagues to kill the lawmaker's bills.
"Often the fear of coming forward and what the consequence of that will look like suppresses anyone from saying anything," she said. "And what it means is that women put up with a lot, and then it starts to create a culture where that is an accepted practice."
Women recently have become more vocal about harassment. Since the start of 2017, sexual misconduct or harassment allegations have led to the resignation or expulsion of at least 25 state lawmakers across the country, according to an AP tally.
About 20 additional state lawmakers have faced repercussions such as reprimands and the loss of leadership positions, according to the AP's review. Complaints are pending against several others.
Some of those who quit or were punished are not included in the AP's decade-long tally because no complaint was formally filed or because information about sexual misconduct complaints has not been publicly compiled and released.
The Kentucky Legislative Research Commission told the AP that requests for the number of complaints and related documents "do not fall within the open records law" and that they place "an unreasonable burden" upon the commission. Thus, the number of formal complaints remains officially unknown, even though plenty of sexual misconduct allegations involving the state's lawmakers have been aired publicly.
In 2015, Kentucky paid $400,000 to settle sexual harassment lawsuits involving three Democratic lawmakers. Last year, the Democratic Senate minority whip was replaced after being accused of groping a man, the Republican House speaker and three GOP colleagues lost leadership posts after secretly signing a sexual harassment settlement, and another GOP lawmaker killed himself after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenager.
In New York, a state assemblyman was sanctioned in November by a legislative ethics panel after he was accused of asking a female staffer for nude photos and then leaking her name when she filed a complaint. New York's legislative chambers did not provide even a written response to the AP's inquiry on complaints; the Legislature is exempt from the state's open-records law.
New York state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat known for speaking out on sexual harassment, said she doesn't necessarily have qualms about the Legislature declining to disclose data on sexual harassment complaints. But, she said, "once a determination is made or money is paid out, it should be made public."
Little was known about any complaints in Illinois until an activist publicly testified last fall that her previously unpublicized sexual harassment complaint against a senator had gone unresolved for a year. That's when state Senator McConnaughay discovered that 27 ethics complaints filed since 2015, some involving sexual harassment, had been in limbo because of a vacancy in the legislative inspector general's office.
Complaints to the inspector general are exempt from public disclosure. But when the AP turned to the legislature for records on the number of sexual harassment complaints, the Illinois Senate responded that it had no such documents. The Illinois House indicated it didn't track such things and wasn't required "to prepare answers to questions or create new documents or lists in response to a request."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.