Wisconsin Senate chamber file photo (copy) (copy)

The Wisconsin Legislature's system for reporting sexual harassment claims requires staff to report to human resources officials who may work for the lawmakers they are complaining about. 

M.P. KING, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

State taxpayers in 2015 paid $75,000 to a former lawmaker's aide who was fired after filing a complaint alleging sexual harassment and discrimination, records show. 

The case — filed in 2011 against former Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee — is one of four complaints of sexual harassment filed in the state Legislature in the last 10 years, according to its chief clerks. 

One other complaint was filed in the state Senate in 2009 and two complaints were filed in the state Assembly in 2014 and 2017, Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk and Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller said in response to a request made by the Wisconsin State Journal to their offices under the state's open records law.

The clerks also said there have been no complaints of sexual assault or misconduct filed with either office since Jan. 1, 2007.

Neither provided details about the filed complaints or released any documents related to the complaints aside from the six-page 2015 settlement agreement between Coggs and the staff member. Renk said he was releasing the settlement agreement because it was reached through the Department of Workforce Development's Equal Rights Division complaint process.

Coggs, who is now Milwaukee City Treasurer, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Scores of women have come forward nationwide in recent months to report alleged sexual harassment, assault and misconduct by powerful men, bringing fresh scrutiny to state Legislatures and Congress over whether such behavior is addressed judiciously. 

Assembly and Senate leaders have said they will not release complaints of sexual harassment, assault or misconduct. Fuller also has denied State Journal requests for records of taxpayer-funded settlements resulting from such complaints, and Renk and Fuller have denied requests for complaints with victim information redacted. 

The scrutiny also comes at a time when the Legislature is working to improve the system for reporting harassment and training to deter it.

In the state Legislature, fear of retaliation can be underscored by the fact that staff work for lawmakers and can be fired for any reason, some staff say, and because lawmakers also have a say in the employment of the Legislature's staff in charge of receiving complaints.

The fear of retaliation often keeps staff from reporting sexual harassment from their bosses — lawmakers in this case, experts say.

"This is like the wolves guarding the henhouse," Jennifer Drobac, a sexual harassment law professor at Indiana University, said. "The legislative staff work directly for the lawmaker, so if they had a problem with the lawmaker they would have to go to human resources staff who also work for the lawmakers — so both sets of subordinates are going to have to worry about losing their jobs if the person that they are complaining about is the lawmaker unless the lawmaker is an honorable person in which case he or she is not engaging in the type of behavior that we are discussing."

In other states, like Minnesota and Illinois, staff work for legislative caucuses instead of lawmakers. 

Employee training changing

Amanda Jorgenson, who oversees the Legislature's human resources office, said she was hired about a year ago and since then has been working to overhaul the Legislature's employee manuals and hiring process to ensure staff and lawmakers know what kind of behavior is not tolerated. Jorgenson said she also started working with legislative leaders this spring to create regular training for all staff and lawmakers. 

She said any staff members who share concerns with her office are assured retaliation from supervisors or co-workers won't be tolerated and is illegal. She also emphasized that her office is independent and that no lawmakers were involved in her hiring. 

Legislative "leadership did approve of hiring an HR Manager but was not involved in the hiring process," she said. "In addition, the Legislative Human Resources Office is an arm of the Chief Clerk’s Offices but is a completely separate office."

This story will be updated.

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