JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's House speaker on Friday called for mandatory annual sexual-harassment training for members and staff following allegations that a former lawmaker sexually harassed interns and another exchanged sexual texts with one.
GOP Speaker Todd Richardson also wants to ban House members from having romantic relationships with staff or interns, and to prohibit staff from having such relationships with subordinates. He recommends requiring an outside investigation for any sexual harassment complaints involving House members, and is proposing additional oversight for intern programs.
"These proposed policy changes are not a cure-all," Richardson, of Poplar Bluff, said in a statement, "but they do take significant, substantive steps toward improving the work environment in the Capitol so that interns, staff and members can have a workplace where they are treated with respect and free from harassment."
Richardson has said review of current House policies would be a top priority since colleagues picked him to succeed Republican former House Speaker John Diehl of Town and Country, who resigned on the last day of the legislative session in May after admitting to exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a Capitol intern.
Former Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, resigned months later. One intern had accused him of sexual harassment, and the July release of a Senate investigation into that intern's complaint led another intern to come forward and claim LeVota made unwanted sexual advances toward her in 2010.
LeVota has denied the allegations.
Taylor Hirth, the second intern to come forward with claims against LeVota, said she's "just happy to see that they've proposed some changes." But she raised concerns about another one of Richardson's recommendations in which he called for expanding who is required to report harassment claims to include a number of House staffers and all House members.
"Sometimes they just want the support and to be able to talk to somebody about it without worrying that that conversation is going to be released to somebody else," said Hirth, who interned for LeVota when she was 24.
Current policy requires complaints to be investigated. It says investigations and complaints must be handled "as confidentially and discreetly as possible" and be shared with only those who need to know and in accordance with the law.
Missouri's Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a statement Friday that she's working with advocacy groups "to make sure interns have somewhere to go for reliable information" besides the state Capitol when facing harassment.
McCaskill, who before LeVota's resignation had said he should "seriously consider" his ability to serve in office amid the harassment allegations, said the proposed policy changes look like "a step in the right direction."
A legislative task force, higher education officials and representatives of the Kansas City-based Women's Foundation, which promotes equity for women and girls, worked to shape them.
Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation, said in a statement that the foundation is "supportive of the General Assembly's continued work to create an environment where all interns have an equal opportunity to learn and succeed." In a phone interview, she said the recommendations are not perfect but are a good start.
"As long as sexual harassment exists and is enabled in the Missouri State Capitol or anywhere else, that presents a barrier for women to advance professionally and to lead in the future," Doyle said in the statement.
House spokesman Trevor Fox said the House currently offers sexual harassment training with each new class of members, but the training is not required. Richardson said House staff is reviewing the current training to make sure it's up to date and in a format that can be provided to all members when the next legislative session begins in January.
The proposed policy changes now head to a House administration committee for review and a public hearing. Chairman Rep. Mike Leara, a St. Louis Republican, said he hopes to vote on the proposals by Dec. 1 after gathering public input.
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