The state House has unveiled proposed changes to its intern and sexual harassment policies. The release is the latest step in the chamber leadership’s response to the resignation of former speaker John Diehl, Junior, in May, after admitting to exchanging sexually-suggestive texts with a college intern.
House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff), who was elected Speaker after Diehl’s resignation, said the proposal is the result of a collaborative effort including House members in a task force appointed by Richardson, House attorneys, officials from institutions of higher learning, and the Women’s Foundation.
Key recommendations in the plan include mandatory annual conduct and ethics training for House members including sexual harassment policy and procedures; mandatory annual staff training including sexual harassment policy and procedures; a formal prohibition of romantic fraternization between members, staff, and interns; the requirement that sexual harassment complaints involving House members or the Chief Clerk be investigated by outside counsel; oversight of the intern program by House Administration including the creation of an intern ombudsman to act as an advocate and coordinator; expansion of the list of mandated reporters to include all leadership staff; and an annual review by that ombudsman and with institutions sending interns of intern policies.
Women’s Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle said in a statement it, “commends Speaker Richardson’s efforts to address inappropriate behavior towards Capitol interns.” The statement continues, “Speaker Richardson and the Women’s Foundation listened to Missouri women, incorporated their ideas, and remains committed to changing the culture of the Capitol. We are supportive of the General Assembly’s continued work to create an environment where all interns have an equal opportunity to learn and succeed.”
The task force process that led to the proposal released today has been criticized by House Democrats. They say the process hasn’t been as public as it needed to be, with that task force never holding a meeting and instead communicating largely by email or phone. Democrats also say their members on that task force were given a “runaround” when they attempted to find out how its work was proceeding.
Richardson says the process to this point has been as open and inclusive as it needed to be.
“I think we’ve taken input from everyone that was willing to offer the input,” said Richardson. “I appreciate the work the Democrat members of the task force did. Representative [Kip] Kendrick spent a lot of time working through this policy and making several recommendations which I’m proud to say we were able to incorporate.”
“Those that want to criticize the process and timing of this, I think, are more interested in playing politics than they are the substance of what we’re trying to do here,” said Richardson. “As I know [House Minority Leader Jake Hummel] and others know, this policy as a formal of the House will get a full, public hearing. There will continue to be the opportunity for input, and as I have said all along through this process, we will be ready to work with anybody who is interested in improving the substance of our policy and the environment in Jefferson City.”
As for enforcement of the policy, Richardson acknowledges that is more difficult with legislators, who cannot be removed from office by fellow legislators, than it will be with staff and other individuals.
“This policy, the way we have it structured now, will be enforced by referral to our House Committee on Ethics. That is the formal committee that exists to handle legislative discipline, and that committee will be empowered with a whole range of formal actions that they could take against members when appropriate,” said Richardson.
“Let me say this, too,” added Richardson. “As a speaker, I will have a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and if we have members that do not live up to that code of conduct, then I will be prepared to do everything in my power as speaker to make sure that this policy is enforced. Between those two things I feel very confident that we can enforce the policy and we intend to enforce the policy.”
Richardson agreed it is up to lawmakers and staff to avoid inappropriate behavior and to call out others when they see it happening.
“I think its incumbent upon all of us to lead by example in this space, and if we want to create the kind of environment that the public deserves in Jefferson City, then we’re all going to have to take that to heart and to live that,” said Richardson. “The over-, overwhelming majority of the men and women who serve in our Capitol are people who are there for the right reasons and they’re doing the right things, but I think it would be a mistake for us to take the position that we could not improve the environment there in Jefferson City. It starts with this policy but it also starts with making sure that conduct is improved when we get back in January.”
The policy will be the subject of a public hearing by the House Committee on Administration and Accounts. Richardson says that hearing could bring about further changes to the policy.
“I’m sure that there will be,” said Richardson. “I am sure our proposal is not perfect and there are always improvements that can be made in a policy like this, but I think what we’ve incorporated in this policy is, I think, every major, substantive recommendation that we’ve received on how to improve the policy for the House.”
That hearing has not been scheduled.