The Capitol staffer who was sexually harassed by Rep. Staush Gruszynski said the Green Bay Democrat repeatedly invited her back to his hotel room and threatened to follow her home after she declined his advances at a Madison bar last fall.
Speaking with the Cap Times in the days ahead of the Aug. 11 primary where Gruszynski will face off against Green Bay Area School Board member Kristina Shelton, the staffer described Gruszynski’s actions that Oct. 30, 2019, night as “calculated” and dismissed what she characterized as his attempts to downplay what happened.
“It was not an offhand joke or a flirtatious comment,” she said. “It was an explicit conversation to pressure me to going back with him and having sex with him. That’s what it was and people should know that that’s what it was.”
The details of those actions, which led Assembly Democratic leaders to call for Gruszynski’s resignation after legislative human resources officials substantiated the employee’s claims of verbal sexual harassment, haven’t been shared publicly, though they’ve played a central role in the freshman lawmaker’s re-election bid this cycle.
Gruszynski has consistently portrayed the events as inappropriate comments that came after he consumed too much alcohol. He has said the incident led to him making personal changes including staying sober for nine months.
“I had way too much to drink and I apologize fully for those comments,” he said in a July WisconsinEye candidate interview. “I followed HR throughout that entire process. I really believe that it’s important to believe women, especially their words when you make them feel uncomfortable and I took responsibility for those actions.”
“Any accusations of threatening or intimidating the staffer was never told to me and I’m shocked to hear it after the case has been closed by Human Resources,” he said. “I have never been provided with a copy of the complaint, and would be astonished if Human Resources decided not to disclose that to me."
For the employee, the personal stakes tied to Election Day are high. If Gruszynski were to win re-election and return to the Capitol, she said her only recourse may be leaving the job she spent her career working toward.
In the days and weeks after the incident, she described not being able to enter the Capitol without feeling “extreme anxiety” and physically sick. She’d routinely call a friend or fellow staffer to walk her into the building and to her office, where she would stay with the door locked throughout the day.
“I thought about it a lot and I just don’t see that it’s worth it to put myself through that,” she said of keeping her job into the new session, adding: “I don’t know what my anxiety levels would be every day and I just don’t feel like I could do the job effectively (since) that’s affecting me. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
‘The drinks were flowing'
The evening began with appetizers and drinks with the staffer, Gruszynski and several others at a Capitol Square establishment. Hours later, it ended at an east side bar after the employee said Gruszynski, in the presence of two of her friends, insisted she spend the night with him over her repeated objections.
The Cap Times interviewed a Democratic lawmaker, the staffer and two of her friends.
The staffer said she and Gruszynski, as well as other legislative employees, spent much of the night in the same bars, going from one downtown establishment to another before heading to The Rigby Pub and later meeting up at The Malt House.
Along the way, the staffer recalled Gruszynski had offered to buy her drinks and ordered shots and more beverages for her and others at The Rigby. While typically classified as “the Republican bar,” it was packed full of both GOP and Democratic lawmakers and their employees.
Describing The Rigby that night as “a big party atmosphere,” one Democratic lawmaker recalled the “drinks were flowing.”
Standing around with Gruszynski and other Democrats and staffers, the lawmaker said it was clear Gruszynski was “very, very inebriated at that point” in the evening, which the lawmaker estimated was around 8:30 p.m.
After several hours at The Rigby, the staffer offered to drive a fellow legislative employee home. She planned to then meet up with a couple of her friends at a different bar.
But after leaving, she said she got a message from Gruszynski asking where she was. After further replies, she recalled him saying he didn’t know where he was staying that evening or where he was. Though she reminded him which hotel he’d said he was staying at, he asked to meet her at The Malt House and said he’d take a cab there.
“At this point, I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, the guy must be drunk off his ass. He doesn’t know where he’s at,’” she said. “I was legit worried for his safety."
In separate interviews, her two friends recalled that they received messages notifying them a lawmaker would be joining them and that the staffer may need help in dealing with the situation because he appeared to be drunk.
The move, they said, wasn’t uncharacteristic of the employee. Said one friend: “She’s a responsible staffer and 100 percent cares, not just about her responsibilities.”
The Cap Times wasn’t able to review messages sent and received that evening. While they were submitted to HR as part of officials’ investigations into the incident, the staffer had since deleted them from her phone. Though the Cap Times and other media organizations are suing for the release of those records, they haven’t yet been made public.
The records were not obtained ahead of publication, and neither Gruszynski nor the staffer said they’ve seen the full files.
When the staffer, with her two friends in tow, entered the bar, they found Gruszynski there having a drink and sat down beside him. After a brief round of introductions, the staffer said Gruszynski, who she described as capable of having a “non-slurred conversation with me,” began asking her whether she’d go back to his hotel room with him.
After she refused multiple times, she recalled Gruszynski telling her that he had "my eye on (you) for a long time” and that she was giving him “signals.” She refuted that, emphasizing that they were only friends and repeating that she would not spend the evening with him.
He then, she said, told her if she wanted to leave, “I’ll just follow you,“ adding: “I know where you live.”
While the staffer’s friends didn’t hear that part of the conversation, one of them recalled the staffer repeating “no” a number of times and saying, “I’m here to get you back to your hotel safely.” The other friend remembered thinking the staffer looked upset at what was being said.
But while her friends agreed Gruszynski appeared drunk, with his eyes “sort of glazed over,” one noted he was “still able to have a conversation and function.”
Shortly after, the staffer headed to the restroom and called a Democratic lawmaker — a conversation the legislator verified — before returning to the bar.
“I’ve never heard her that scared and that emotional,” the lawmaker recalled. “She was really scared for her safety.”
After further back-and-forth between Gruszynski and the staffer and her friends, in which they all separately said they urged him to get a cab, the trio left the bar and headed to the staffer’s car, though one friend said she went back inside to confront Gruszynski before they left.
Later that evening, the staffer said, she got a message from Gruszynski, who said he was sorry. She said she didn’t respond.
The staffer said she reported the incident to HR in the days after.
She also faced near-daily anxiety. Fearful to enter the Capitol and worried to roam the halls in case she may run into Gruszynski, she felt like “a hostage in my office.”
But her days were also shaped by developments in the case. In December, HR’s probe into the incident substantiated the staffer’s complaint against Gruszynski, though details of it and the findings were not released.
At the time, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, announced Gruszynski was stripped of his committee assignments and no longer able to caucus with Democrats. He and state Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler also urged Gruszynski to resign.
But Gruszynski rebuffed the calls, saying in a statement what happened came “after drinking too much in a Madison bar” and that his behavior “was unprofessional and completely unacceptable.” He also pledged to “rebuild what I’ve broken” as he sought “to apologize directly to that staffer and everyone that was involved that evening.”
The employee said she hadn’t received a personal apology from him since the text she said he sent back in October.
Gruszynski in his Friday statement noted he has publicly apologized and followed HR’s “protocols and suggestions every step of the way.” That includes not discussing the complaint publicly or directly to the staffer, as he said HR had requested.
Gruszynski also highlighted the proximity of this article to the election, alleging he was “threatened early on in this process by a state legislator” who said they would disclose details of the complaint publicly if he were to run for re-election.
“I shared that threat with human resources immediately after it occurred,” he said.
Gruszynski was required to attend anti-harassment training, which he completed, an HR spokeswoman confirmed in an email to the Cap Times in early February. She wrote he “was very proactive and cooperative in scheduling” it.
Also that month, Shelton announced she would challenge Gruszynski in the August primary and Gruszynski touted support from two female Democrats, including state Rep. Amanda Stuck, who’s running for Congress. Stuck, who says she was sexually assaulted twice, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she acknowledges what Gruszynski did was wrong but said she believes in redemption.
Though Stuck has since withdrawn her support, at the time, she said: "I have a problem with treating all cases like they’re exactly the same. As somebody who has been assaulted, I know it’s not the same as other instances that are not assault.”
But the staffer pushed back on that distinction, saying: “I’ve been assaulted before, and to me (what Gruszynski did) felt more traumatic because it was someone I knew and I trusted and I worked with.”
As the pre-primary cycle continued, the two candidates for the northeastern 90th Assembly District participated in interviews and debates but leadership and party officials didn’t overtly get involved in the race until last month, when leaders took the unusual step of endorsing Shelton, the challenger.
Top Democrats also warned they wouldn’t allow Gruszynski to return to the caucus if he ends up winning his race.
Through it all, the staffer has been unable to avoid news surrounding him.
“In case you haven’t noticed, this has become a very hostile race,” she said. “I literally can’t go on social media without seeing something about it.”
‘Control the narrative’
Days out from the election, the staffer said there were a number of things that prompted her to come forward now: the stakes of the looming primary, a desire to protect the work she put in to get a job in the Capitol and an urge to set the record straight.
“He’s gotten to control the narrative,” she said, later adding: “I don’t want to run for office. I really like running things behind the scenes. Just because I don't aspire for higher office doesn’t mean that I haven’t put in a lot of time and effort into my career.”
One of her friends said if she were to leave her job because Gruszynski wins, “it would be devastating” to her and bad for the Assembly.
“She has worked hard,” the friend said. “Politics is an ugly game and there is an underappreciation for those who are really good at what they do.”
“Just because you’re a legislator does not give you more of a right to be in that building than me,” the staffer said. “I have a right to be in that building and do my job and feel safe.”
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