The leaders of the Wisconsin Assembly will not release records related to complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct by lawmakers or staffers, citing concerns that making them public could prevent victims from coming forward in the future.
"The goal of an internal process is to make sure that every single person who feels that they were a victim of some kind of harassment or sexual harassment has a way to go to be able to report it to somebody, have some confidentiality, have it investigated, because frankly, if the allegations are untrue, we want to ensure people have the right to their own privacy with a false accusation, but also if they are true, we want to make sure that the victim is protected," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters on Tuesday.
While open government advocates have questioned the policy, the approach is one generally supported by victims' rights advocacy groups like the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. WCASA associate director Ian Henderson said privacy is one of the primary concerns the organization's staff hears about when it speaks with victims.
Even if names and personal information are redacted in such a report, Henderson said, a victim could be identified in an environment like a legislator's office, where only a few staffers are employed.
That being said, Henderson said, a balance must be struck between ensuring victims' privacy and promoting transparency and accountability for public officials and employees who engage in sexual harassment. Confidentiality should not be used to cultivate secrecy for perpetrators of sexual misconduct, he said.
"A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works for survivors, whose needs are different," Henderson said.
Assembly employees attended a mandatory staff meeting Tuesday morning, led by the Legislature's human resources director, to discuss sexual harassment prevention and response. Lawmakers were encouraged but not required to attend.
The meeting was designed to reiterate the policies and procedures made known to Assembly employees when they are hired, Vos said. Vos and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said they have agreed to make sexual harassment training a mandatory component of the ethics training given to legislators and staff members at the start of each legislative session.
"We have been very lucky that in the Assembly we have been a really good workplace," Vos said. "We have had very few incidences since I've been involved, of any kind of harassment, and we want to keep it that way."
The Legislature's most notorious example is that of former Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, who was sentenced to five months in jail in 2014 on charges that he groped and pushed a political aide outside a Republican event in 2011.
Kramer was stripped of his leadership position and thrown out of the Republican caucus after he was accused of that incident and of harassing two women during a Republican event in Washington, D.C. in 2014, and did not seek re-election.
Vos said the Kramer incident should indicate that legislative leaders take accusations of sexual harassment and assault seriously.
Asked whether a lack of transparency could serve to protect harassers and abusers, Vos said the goal of the Assembly's process is to ensure victims are comfortable coming forward and that they can receive justice.
"I understand sometimes in the zeal of the press you don’t really worry about naming the victims and all those kind of things," Vos said. "Our job is to ensure that people who want to come forward feel safe and that they are confident that we will treat it with the respect and the due diligence they deserve."
Vos said he was not aware of any settlements awarded in harassment cases before or during his tenure as Speaker, adding that the state makes its expenditures public on a website. It has been recently reported that Congress has paid $17 million in workplace settlements since 1997 — though it is not known how much of that sum was for sexual harassment claims.
More than a dozen state legislators throughout the country have been accused of sexual harassment and assault as a rapidly growing number of women and men come forward with stories of improper behavior. The floodgates burst open with a New York Times report on decades' worth of allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, followed by the #MeToo social media movement and a list of allegations across industries and party lines that grows every day.
No Wisconsin lawmakers have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct in the context of the current spate of allegations.
Reports from other states — Texas, in particular — have shed light on policies that are difficult to enforce when they are violated by elected officials, whose employment status differs from staffers who are hired directly by the Legislature.
Vos acknowledged that members of the Legislature work for the voters and taxpayers of their district, but added they also have responsibilities to the institution of the Legislature. He said he and Hintz would step in if a legislator were the subject of a claim.
"They (legislators) are given the opportunity to be a ranking member or a chairman at our discretion. They have staff at our discretion," Vos said, referring to himself and Hintz. "So if for some reason we saw somebody who was creating a situation where there was a hostile workplace, I think we have both agreed unanimously that we would take it seriously and we would make sure that the staff member feels safe, or the fellow legislator."
There are four ways to report a harassment claim in the Assembly: go to Vos, go to Hintz, go to a supervisor or go to the Legislature's human resources department. There is a progressive discipline process in place for people who are found to have engaged in such behavior.