Annual sexual-harassment training required in Missouri House

AP News
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Posted: Nov 05, 2015 9:10 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri House members and staff will now have to undergo annual sexual-harassment training following the resignations this year of two lawmakers accused of inappropriate behavior with interns.

A House panel voted 6-1 Thursday to add the training and adopted other changes related to the same issue. Among them, the Administration and Accounts Committee expanded who is required to report alleged harassment, a change criticized as insensitive to victims by one of the interns involved.

The panel's vote was the only one needed to enact the requirement.

The changes were the first made since the resignation of former Republican House Speaker John Diehl, who left the chamber in disarray on the last day of session in May after admitting to exchanging sexually charged text messages with a Capitol intern.

Former Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota, of Independence, resigned months later amid allegations that he sexually harassed interns, including the woman who is now criticizing the harassment reporting expansion. LeVota has denied the claims.

Previously in the House, sexual-harassment training was included in new member orientation but wasn't required. House Chief Clerk Adam Crumbliss said staff also are reviewing the current training curriculum and are considering contracting with an outside firm with experience in the training.

In addition to all House members and a number of House employees, all staff in majority and minority leadership offices will now be required to report claims of harassment for investigation.

The committee also adopted a new policy that bans House members from having romantic relationships with staff or interns, and staff members now are also prohibited from having such relationships with subordinates.

The panel held off on another recommendation from Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who succeeded Diehl, to require that complaints against House members or made by those lawmakers be investigated by outside legal counsel.

The policy changes were generally praised as a step forward by lawmakers, intern coordinators and the Kansas City-based Women's Foundation, which promotes equity for women and girls. But a concern that some pointed out to the panel during a public hearing centered on mandatory reporting.

Taylor Hirth, who claims LeVota made unwanted sexual advances toward her in 2010 while she was a 24-year-old intern in his office, told lawmakers that mandated reporting is "unnecessary." She said it should be up to victims whether to bring forward complaints of harassment for a full-blown investigation. She said that sometimes victims are not ready to do so, and "you don't need somebody else to speak for you."

"As an intern who experienced unwanted sexual attention from a legislator, I had no desire to talk to anybody who might take our private conversation to anybody else without my consent," said Hirth, who spoke five years after her internship when another intern filed a complaint against LeVota.

Hirth said she's working with Missouri's Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who questioned LeVota's ability to serve after Hirth spoke out against him, and others to find a way to provide resources outside the Capitol for interns facing harassment.

But Rep. Mike Leara, chairman of the Administration and Accounts Committee and a St. Louis Republican, said required reporting is necessary "for this to really be effective."

"We have the obligation," Crumbliss said, "that if the report comes forward, we have to do something about it."

Democratic Rep. Michele Kratky, of St. Louis, was the only member to vote against the sexual-harassment policy, saying she thought lawmakers needed more time to review it and questioned the consequences if legislators don't comply with the new rules.

Crumbliss said potential lawmaker violations will go before the House Ethics Committee.

Leara said if "anything needs to be addressed" before the session beginning in January, he will schedule another hearing. He did not indicate when the panel might consider the recommendation to require outside legal counsel for complaints against House members.