State Politics

As the #MeToo movement hits statehouses, one NC lawmaker wants new protections

N.C. House Democratic leader Rep. Darren Jackson holds up a bill on March 28, 2017. On Jan. 30, Jackson formally asked for new protections at the N.C. General Assembly that he claims would help prevent sexual harassment.
N.C. House Democratic leader Rep. Darren Jackson holds up a bill on March 28, 2017. On Jan. 30, Jackson formally asked for new protections at the N.C. General Assembly that he claims would help prevent sexual harassment. cseward@newsobserver.com

As allegations of sexual misconduct pile up against powerful men across the country – including in state capitols – a North Carolina lawmaker is calling for new protections at the legislature.

In a Jan. 30 letter to the facilities manager of the Legislative Building, state Rep. Darren Jackson of Knightdale outlined some steps the General Assembly could take to better prevent sexual harassment.

“The news accounts and social media stories have brought into focus how prevalent sexual harassment problems are in all types of jobs. I am writing to request that we initiate steps to advance our workplace culture,” Jackson, House Democrats’ leader, wrote to Paul Coble, the top legislative services officer at the Republican-controlled legislature.

“As state leaders, we have a duty to lead by example in creating a General Assembly workplace environment where everyone is treated with dignity,” Jackson wrote. “Clearly, this is not a Democratic or Republican problem.”

Coble responded that he welcomes the input and is already working to offer anti-harassment training for all lawmakers and legislative staff.

Among the recommendations:

▪  The creation of a “General Assembly Workplace Harassment Policy.”

▪  The creation of a training program that will provide resources and information about harassment prevention to legislators and staff members.

▪  The creation of a “fair and independent investigatory process.”

He wrote that House Democrats heard about preventative measures they could take during a recent retreat where they invited experts on the issue to speak. Jackson didn’t say in the letter whether he’s aware of any instances of harassment at the legislature.

Policies in place

The General Assembly has policies against sexual harassment that the Legislative Ethics Committee is tasked with enforcing.

Sexual harassment is spelled out by policy as unwelcome sexual advances, graphic and offensive comments about someone’s body or attire, touching of a sexual nature, 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.”

Complaints of harassment go to the ethics committee. However, a complaint cannot be filed anonymously, and must be signed and notarized before it can be sent to the co-chairs of the committee. The committee is chaired by two Republicans – Rep. John Faircloth of Guilford County and Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County. While its chairmen are Republicans, the board itself is evenly split between the two parties.

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.

Working on updates

Coble recently told The Insider, The N&O’s state government news service, that the General Assembly doesn’t conduct annual training concerning sexual harassment, but that it’s addressed during new employee orientation meetings.

Coble says he’s taken a proactive approach to ensure employees at the General Assembly are protected and has already directed his staff to review and update the General Assembly’s policies on harassment. The General Assembly’s human resources department has gathered information from other states and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Southern Legislative Conference and the state's human resources office for resources and training materials.

"It is my highest priority to provide a safe and secure workplace for all members, staff, visiting North Carolinians and those who conduct business at the General Assembly,” Coble wrote in a response to Jackson on Monday. “My goal is for everyone at the General Assembly to have the opportunity to benefit from anti-harassment training.”

17 complaints since 2007

If the ethics committee finds evidence to substantiate a complaint, it can issue a public or private admonishment to an accused lawmaker. It can also refer the matter to the attorney general for investigation and to the district attorney for any criminal prosecution. The complaint can also be handled by either chamber of the General Assembly.

A complaint filed with the ethics committee 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.

Since 2007, 17 complaints have been filed. Including some complaints held over from other years, there have been 19 complaints dismissed, and just two complaints with action – either a private admonishment or a referral to the House or Senate to be dealt with.

What others do

By contrast, the New York State 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.

In Colorado, complaints are handled confidentially, but policy covers everyone working at the legislature, including lobbyists, journalists and government staff, not just lawmakers.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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