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House speaker defends handling of sex harassment allegations

October 31, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s Democratic House speaker defended his handling of allegations of sexual harassment among state lawmakers on Wednesday amid criticism that he didn’t do enough to address it.

Speaker Nicholas Mattiello removed Democratic Rep. Cale Keable as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee Monday, soon after a months-old email to Mattiello surfaced in which Democratic Rep. Katherine Kazarian accused Keable of sexual harassment.

Multiple groups criticized Mattiello after WPRI-TV reported on the email, with the Rhode Island Democratic Party Women’s Caucus calling Keable’s removal “too little, too late.” The caucus said there has been a “failure of leadership.”

Mattiello and his spokesman have said that Kazarian never filed an official complaint and that Mattiello was not the proper person to handle such a complaint. Keable’s lawyer has denied that he ever harassed Kazarian.

Mattiello told WPRI that he had been given no evidence of sexual harassment and that it’s not legislative business. He also told The Providence Journal it’s not his place to intervene, describing Keable and Kazarian as being on “equal footing” as lawmakers.

Formal complaints must be filed with the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mattiello’s spokesman, Larry Berman, said Wednesday. None have been filed.

That approach appears to differ from how an allegation would be handled in the state Senate. Senate spokesman Greg Pare said senators could report harassing behavior to the Senate president, as well as to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which is the legislature’s human resources department, or to the human rights commission.

Mattiello also disclosed to WPRI on Tuesday that a different female House member approached him in January to say she had been sexually harassed by a male House member in a public setting. He said that’s the only complaint he has received where the lawmaker requested he take action.

Mattiello told the female lawmaker how to file a complaint, but she chose not to, Berman said Wednesday.

In January, a state representative publicly complained about the conduct during sexual harassment training of another state lawmaker, and said she was seeking guidance from her leadership team.

The Associated Press asked Mattiello’s office March 19 and April 10 whether it had received any sexual misconduct complaints against legislators since 2008. Berman said there had been none. He said Tuesday that at the time there had been no “official” complaints filed.

Last year, Democratic Rep. Teresa Tanzi said a higher-ranking legislator told her sexual favors would allow her bills to go further. In response, Mattiello asked Tanzi to create a legislative commission to address sexual harassment. None of the bills proposed by the commission got a vote on the House floor in the recent legislative session.

Mattiello is running for re-election against a Republican opponent who also sought to oust him in 2016. Republican Steven Frias lost in 2016 by 85 votes.

Mattiello is blaming unnamed “ultra-progressives” who want power at the state house for leaking Kazarian’s email right before the election.

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Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.

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