HARTFORD, CT — Leaders of the four legislative caucuses began the process Monday of examining their own sexual harassment policies and it wasn’t long before the camera was pointed in their direction.
One lawmaker quickly pointed out that if a lawmaker is the one sexually harassing staff or lobbyists, they are largely protected from any adverse employment actions.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who is not a member of the Joint Legislative Management Committee, asked whether there are any rules for legislators when it comes to romantic relationships with their aides. Or what could happen if a lawmaker told a lobbyist they will vote for a bill if that female lobbyist continues to show up in a short skirt? Or what happens if a female lawmaker is groped by a male lawmaker in an elevator?
Most of what happens next depends on what the victim of those incidents decides to do, Jim Tamburro, human resources administrator for the Office of Legislative Management, said.
Essentially a complaint could be made to the Office of Legislative Management through the chief of staff of the caucus, but Human Resources doesn’t have the ability to take any type of action against the lawmaker.
Legislative leaders have the power to strip their caucus members of committee assignments, and could ask a chamber to form a committee of inquiry into the allegations, but they can’t remove an elected-lawmaker from office.
“There are a lot of things that happen because there is a power dynamic that is very unique,” Flexer said.
Her sentiment was shared by others on the committee.
“We would encourage people to come see us and share what they’ve seen,“ Tamburro said.
He said they can’t do anything about a situation if they don’t know about the situation.
Generally, he said he would call the victim of the alleged harassment into his office and determine how they would like to proceed.
Flexer said it all goes back to the victim and making sure they are comfortable being able to come forward.
“There’s got to be some way of addressing this without depending upon heroes,” Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, said.
Flexer agreed. She said they have to find a way for victims to come forward. And let them know their career isn’t going to be destroyed because of it.
Flexer said if they were being honest and not in a public forum they could give a lot of examples of people who were victims of sexual harassment who chose not to be the “hero” because they didn’t want it to follow them around for the rest of their working career.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said if Flexer is aware of any sexual harassment she needs to report it.
“If she knows something she should say something,” Klarides said. “Isn’t that the point of these hearings?”
Klarides said the point of these hearings is to gather information about where the policies need to be improved. She said only members of the committee should be allowed to speak.
As for the issue of lawmakers acting inappropriately, “There are businesses who say if you’re a boss you can’t have a romantic relationship with anybody who is a direct report,” Klarides said. “We should discuss and figure out what will work the best. This isn’t a company where you can just fire somebody. We have elected officials.”
Flexer said she was trying to point out that “we still have a system here that doesn’t empower the victim.”
She said she’s been speaking up about these issues for years.
As far as the lack of language in the policy about romantic relationships between lawmakers and aides it’s “stunning,” Flexer said. “I believed as a legislator you are not allowed to engage in any romantic relationships with staff you had direct supervision over.”
Has she witnessed it? No, but it has happened.
Flexer said she believes it’s happening less now than it was 10 years ago, but there should be an explicit policy.
The sexual harassment policy in the handbook was last updated in 2014.
The Office of Legislative Management is currently conducting a survey of staff, lawmakers, and lobbyists to see what changes they should make to the policy. Once the survey is completed then legislative leaders said they will reconvene to talk about next steps.
Will that happen before the election?
No one was able to say Monday.