Independent investigator proposed for Statehouse harassment
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — An independent human resources employee would investigate sexual harassment complaints against New Hampshire lawmakers under a bill before a Senate committee Wednesday.
Currently, complaints against House members are reported to the House or Senate chiefs of staff. Under a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, neither leadership office would oversee such investigations.
“As elected officials, we hold positions of power,” Feltes told the Executive Departments and Administration Committee. “If we’re going to be serious about dealing with claims of sexual harassment, we need to take that power differential out of that equation.”
Nationwide, at least 90 state lawmakers have resigned or been ousted, faced discipline or other repercussions, or been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since the beginning of 2017. Many of those allegations were brought to light as part of the #MeToo movement.
In the first seven months of 2018, there were seven harassment complaints against members of the New Hampshire House and staff, according to information provided by the chief of staff in August. Updated figures weren’t available Wednesday, but the early 2018 complaints included a female lawmaker who said a male lawmaker faced her and “wiggled his pelvis” as he moved past her while she was seated in Representatives’ Hall.
In another case, a staffer said a male legislator consistently made derogatory comments to her over the course of a year, calling her “the old bat” and “granny in the corner.” The lawmaker called it “good-natured” teasing, according to the chief of staff’s report.
Earlier, the House had provided information about nine complaints between 2015 and December 2017. The Senate said at that time it had no records of such complaints, though Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said she hears anecdotal complaints about Statehouse harassment a few times a month.
“We know that sexual harassment takes place everywhere and here is no exception,” she said. “And we know that the number one reason cited for those who have concerns or complaints is fear of retribution.”
The bill would also require the Legislature to create a new sexual harassment policy that would be reviewed and revised as needed every two years. Lawmakers on the committee said they want to review recently enacted policies in neighboring Maine and Vermont.
Feltes, a Democrat from Concord, said the current system presents an inherent conflict of interest.
“People don’t feel comfortable raising these issues. They don’t, and they should,” he said. “We need to take it out of hands of people in power and put it into an independent office so people can raise these issues with real accountability with respect to the conduct of the people who serve on the General Court.”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said he supports the bill.