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Sarah Walker says she realized sexual harassment was a problem at the Capitol almost from the moment she first registered as a lobbyist in her late 20s. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Sarah Walker says she realized sexual harassment was a problem at the Capitol almost from the moment she first registered as a lobbyist in her late 20s. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

What are the next steps in combating sexual harassment at the Capitol?

Correction: Due to a transcription error, a quote from Hamline political science professor David Schultz in an article about creating a possible sexual harassment investigations mechanism at the Capitol was misattributed to Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. Schultz, not Garofalo, called for “a basic conflict-of-interest analysis” to be applied. While Garofalo says in principle he could support such a possibility, the words attributed to him were not his.

Sarah Walker is tired of talking about the sexual harassment she has endured as a lobbyist at the Capitol. That doesn’t mean she wants to forget the whole thing. She just wants to focus on what’s next.

Walker confirms that her allegations led to the abrupt resignation of Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the influential chair of the House Public Safety committee. The allegations that forced Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, also to resign were made by others.

While avoiding details, Walker said she realized sexual harassment was a problem at the Capitol almost from the moment she first registered as a lobbyist in her late 20s. But until she stepped forward as the lobbyist behind the Cornish charges, she had never reported any maltreatment.

“For many years I didn’t say anything,” Walker said in a Dec. 1 interview. “There are a lot of reasons why. But one is that there is no articulated way for a lobbyist to report anything.”

That is what she wants to see changed. She won’t commit to becoming the public face of the effort, but she hopes the Legislature will develop a reporting and due-process system for lobbyists and others who are not Capitol employees — and not protected by its internal HR policies.

Walker’s background includes a stint as a nonprofit executive who managed human resources training and systems — so she has dealt with various allegations of harassment and discrimination in her career. That is where she finds the germ of an idea for moving the ball forward on sexual harassment.

First, she said, the Legislature needs to audit itself to find out how prevalent sexual harassment is.

Then, she said, it needs to develop a mechanism — be it a permanent office or a hired, third-party organization — that is authorized to take in complaints and conduct due-process investigations that are fair to the accuser and the accused. That office would make recommendations to either discipline offenders or dismiss unfounded allegations, she said.

“I think there needs to be some sort of due process in place so that women don’t have to come forward,” she said, “so that we don’t have to end up in these dramatic situations that result in public announcements and resignations.”

Ombudsman’s office?

She is not the only one thinking about this. Sen. Jeff Hayden, an assistant Senate minority leader, is mulling the idea as well.

He anticipates a several-step process. First, he said, lawmakers need to reappraise the Legislature’s harassment policies. Then the Legislature needs to bring in an outside consultant to develop a curriculum for harassment training to make sure it is effective.

Then, he said, the Legislature should create an office, possibly patterned after the ombudsman’s office in the Department of Human Services, to investigate complaints and recommend ways to resolve them. It could host and staff a telephone hotline where lobbyists and others could report incidents of harassment without fear of reprisal, he said.

The ombudsman or its equivalent would then look into the allegations and discern whether an incident involves an inappropriate, off-color joke that could be resolved with a bit of counseling for the offender, or if it is serious sexual misconduct that requires stronger action, Hayden said.

Hayden is just starting to work out a proposal. He is not sure yet if it requires a full legislative bill, or just a resolution. The latter, he said, might simply authorize the nonpartisan Legislative Coordinating Commission to take bids from human resources professionals, employment attorneys and other experts to collaborate on a comprehensive plan.

“I want to make sure this gets done right,” Hayden said. “I want to make sure that we do this in a nonpartisan way that has a third party involved. What I don’t want to leak in is politics.”

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, says he is committed to an anti-harassment cultural change in the Legislature and supports Hayden’s idea. “I think it has merit,” he said. “It creates more security and safety and confidence for women bringing issues like harassment forward.”

Gov. Mark Dayton indicated Monday that he, too, is thinking along these lines.

At a press conference, he said he has set up a task force of about a half-dozen senior agency commissioners to explore options for dealing with harassment. One question they are tackling, he said, is whether a centralized reporting procedure and uniform consequences might be applied “to all state agencies and all state employees.”

“I think we could extend that to include lobbyists and members of the press and other people that are here at the Capitol,” he said. However, he added, he first needs to verify that the executive branch has such authority.

Constitutional barrier

Conceivably, a system housed in the executive branch could serve as a clearinghouse for complaints and even recommend punishments, said David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor. But given the sharp levels of mistrust that have developed between the two branches in recent years, now might not be the time, Schultz said.

There is another, perhaps bigger obstacle, Schultz said. Under Article IV, Section 7 of the Minnesota Constitution, only the legislative chambers have authority to punish their members for “disorderly behavior.” Expulsion, should that be a recommendation, can be done only with approval of two-thirds of the body.

Grant Collins, labor and employment attorney for the Minneapolis-based Felhaber Larson law firm, agrees that is a major obstacle. “The separation of powers makes it hard for the governor or the courts to sort of establish something for the Legislature,” he said. “They have to put it on themselves.”

Schultz said the Hayden/Walker idea of legislatively created, semi-autonomous body could work. He adds another idea — requiring all legislators to be “mandated reporters” of any instance of abuse that they witness.

“You have to report them to the office — no discretion — and any reports will be grounds for disciplinary action,” Schultz said. “That way you kick in a responsibility.”

Requests for comment from GOP leadership were not returned by deadline. Susan Closmore, spokesperson for the House GOP, said the idea was for an ombudsman’s office was new to her. That’s no surprise, given that Hayden says he is only thinking about it in a preliminary way at this point.

However, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, did announce on Nov. 11 that all House members would undergo discrimination, harassment and implicit-bias training, as requested by the House minority leader, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. Hayden said senators will undergo the same training.

The House also plans to consult with nonpartisan staff seeking suggestions for improving existing harassment and discrimination policies. That could lead to new rules, “including policies aimed at protecting lobbyists from harassment and discrimination,” Daudt said in a written Nov. 11 statement.

Collins said that, unlike the way he felt six months ago, he is suddenly optimistic that such an effort like that could succeed, given the tectonic shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment. “People now are more amenable to taking proactive steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen,” he said.

For her part, Walker just wants to return to life as normal, lobbying hard for the judicial and public safety reforms that are her passion. She is not interesting in seeking vengeance for any past mistreatment, she said, nor does she want to go on being the Capitol’s public face of sexual harassment. For now, she said, she does even not plan to lobby for the changes that she hopes will come.

“I am going to see where this process goes,” she said. “I haven’t made a commitment to working on this in any formal capacity. If there is a role that I can play that is productive, I will be happy to do that.”

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