Minnesota Senate's sexual harassment policy is 27 years old. Some say it urgently needs updating.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate's official policy on sexual harassment says supervisors should report any complaints to "The Senate Personnel Director."
Except there is no such person. Hasn't been for years.
It's just one example of how the Senate's policy might be considered a bit ... dated.
It was adopted in 1990. The policy posted in the Senate's intranet site for employees is a scan of of 14 pages last printed in 1997. (The Senate now has a "Human Resources Director" to receive such complaints.)
As sexual harassment allegations, including several against a sitting senator, engulfed the Capitol this week, several Democrats on Friday called for a sexual harassment task force that would tackle the issue with a 2017 mind-set.
Among those calling for the task force were Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley and Lindsey Port, a former candidate from Burnsville. Both Democrats have alleged they were sexually harassed by Sen. Dan Schoen, a Democrat from St. Paul Park, while the women were campaigning in 2015.
Their revelations led to a chorus of calls for Schoen to resign, including from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Schoen hasn't.
Schoen has denied any improper conduct, and has retained a lawyer, apparently girding for a fight.
Accusations have also surfaced against Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center. A lobbyist detailed to two news outlets unwanted sexual advances by Cornish, who denied the most serious allegations. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt suspended Cornish's chairmanship of the public safety committee, and former Speaker Kurt Zellers, also a Republican, on Friday called for Cornish to resign.
The House policy on sexual harassment was updated in 2004.
New policy needed?
The potential problem with the current policy is that it's too internal, according to two experts.
"It's going to be tested. The more people that come forward, the more claims that get made, it's going to be tested to see whether or not it works. Particularly with political things," local criminal defense attorney Mike Bryant said.
For instance, both the House and Senate policies call for "leadership" to deal with resolution of complaints against sitting legislators. "Leadership" means people like the Senate majority leader or speaker of the House — partisan politicians.
"If one party or the other decides to use it politically and decides that they're not going to prosecute people in their own party versus what they would do to someone that's not in their party, that's going to put the whole system in question," Bryant said.
Outside experts should be included, according to Shari Julian, a nationally recognized specialist in human resources, employment and sexual harassment issues. "Someone who's an expert in sexual behaviors, in social behaviors, in gender behavior. Maybe it needs to be a couple of people," Julian said.
The outside experts don't have to be called in as soon as a complaint is filed, Julian said. Give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. But if there seems to be probable cause, that's when someone external needs to be brought in.
"It should not be a lawyer, it should not be a law firm. It should be someone that has a social background ... because these things will play into it," Julian said.
It's about power
What's needed, according to those supporting the task force, is an independent, nonpartisan way to investigate complaints.
And it needs to handle more than just Capitol employees.
Neither Port or Quade were members of the Legislature, or employees, when, they allege, Schoen harassed them. Lobbyists, who are employed by outside firms, aren't employees but often find themselves, professionally, at the whim of committee chairs.
"These are predictable situations," said Rep. Erin Murphy, a St. Paul Democrat whom Port confided in. "There are people who come to the Capitol who are not employees, but there's still a power relationship. We need to expand the scope of what we do now to make sure everyone who does business with us feels safe."
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