House Begins Harassment Rule Update Process

States across the country want to update their sexual misconduct rules after lawmakers, including in Minnesota, have been forced out of office.

“We have seen an unprecedented amount of attention to this topic,” Jon Griffin of the National Conference of State Legislatures said on Monday, Feb. 26, to a Minnesota House committee established to set up new rules in the next three months.

Monday was the first meeting of the committee, which expects to prepare recommendations for how sexual misconduct is handled by the time lawmakers adjourn for the year on May 21.

“We have an opportunity to make real change,” House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

Peppin, chairwoman of the committee, said she has no preconceived idea about what her panel may decide.

Griffin said other legislatures are making minor changes, mostly clarifying what already is in place.

Two Minnesota legislators resigned under pressure after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced. Although Peppin said she knows of no other lawmakers who have been accused of sexual misconduct, rumors persist in the Capitol that other cases will surface.

The policy to come out of Peppin’s committee would deal with legislators, legislative staff, lobbyists, media and others who regularly deal with the House.

The Senate is working on its own rule updates, and Peppin said it is possible that the two bodies could work together. Additionally, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would be happy if a new sexual misconduct office he wants to establish could expand into the legislative and judicial branches.

Griffin said policies need to deal with sexual harassment whether it occurs in a state building or elsewhere lawmakers are when it occurs. “This is not your same work environment as your standard corporation.”

Though no decisions have been made, there appears to be support to keep most investigations private, and committee lawmakers were not sure if the outcome of an investigation should be made public if a legislator were accused.

The media printed and broadcast quite a bit of information in recent months when legislators were accused, including the two in Minnesota who resigned: Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.

Minnesota House and Senate members have undergone training about how to avoid sexual misconduct, which Griffin said is a good move. He also suggested that a state have a “clear definition of sexual harassment” and said that any set of rules should include an appeals process.

How to deal with legislators is a tough issue, Peppin said. “They don’t report to anyone” else in the Capitol, she added.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said all House members had to attend an anti-sexual harassment training session last week, or they would lose their committee assignments. Peppin said all representatives were there.

Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said the committee’s intent to update harassment rules this year is good, but she also warned that lawmakers need “to do it right.”