Rule change may close misconduct hearings in Missouri House
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Legislative hearings concerning alleged misconduct by Missouri House members could be closed to the public under new rules intended to shield the identities of those targeted by sexual harassment.
The House rule changes adopted this past week also could effectively shield accused lawmakers from publicity, at least until a substantiated claim is detailed in a final report.
The rule changes come after an extraordinary year in which the House held a mixture of public and private hearings on allegations of sexual and political misconduct by former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens. The House also held a public hearing on an ethics complaint against Republican Rep. Warren Love, of Osceola, for a Facebook post saying whoever vandalized a Confederate monument ought to be hanged.
Love ultimately faced no discipline because of a quirk in the House Ethics Committee’s rules. The new rule would have allowed his hearing to be closed, though some lawmakers said it likely would have remained open.
Greitens’ hearings here handled by a special House committee whose rules gave it the discretion to close hearings. He resigned ahead of a potential impeachment attempt.
House rules keep complaints of ethical and sexual misconduct confidential during an initial investigation. Cases cans be dismissed without the allegations ever becoming public. But the previous rules required open meetings for complaints that advanced to a preliminary or final hearing.
The new rules let the House Ethics Committee close those hearings.
“Some of the issues may be sensitive in nature — personal information, confidentiality information,” said House Ethics Committee Chairman J. Eggleston, a Republican from Maysville. “We wanted the discretion to be able to close those hearings if we saw that would be the right thing to do.”
Democratic Rep. Gina Mitten, the committee’s vice chairwoman, said the primary intent is to protect victims and witnesses of sexual assault and harassment. But she said the shield also could apply to the accused and to other circumstances.
“It’s really just a way to protect the anonymity of everybody involved,” said Mitten, of St. Louis. “Even if it’s not a complaint of sexual harassment, at the preliminary hearing phase we’re just simply getting information. It’s an opportunity for all the parties involved to sort of tell their story.”
The House approved the rule change overwhelmingly, though not without some objections.
“I’m for openness and accountability, so people know what’s going on,” said Republican Rep. Tom Hurst, of Meta, who voted against the rule change.
Democratic Rep. Brandon Ellington, of Kansas City, also opposed the measure.
“I believe all of our hearings and meetings should actually be open to the public,” he said.
Data provided to The Associated Press show the House received five sexual misconduct or harassment complaints in 2018. Two cases were investigated by an outside attorney, which means they likely were made by or against a lawmaker or the chief clerk. The rest would have involved staff and been handled administratively without going to the Ethics Committee; it’s unclear how those were resolved.
House records indicate one of the cases using an outside attorney was initiated last February and dismissed in March.
Records show the Ethics Committee met in November regarding the other complaint and deferred further action to allow time for the accused person to participate in a counseling program and send apology letters to a complainant and witness. That case appears to be ongoing.
Earlier in January, the House also amended its rules to incorporate existing procedures for the external investigation of sexual harassment complaints involving lawmakers.
The rule changes came as the House and Senate both provided mandatory training to lawmakers and staff related to sexual harassment.
A representative from the National Conference of State Legislatures led the House training, which occurred the Monday after a weekend snowstorm. Twenty-two lawmakers and 39 staff missed the sessions and are to go through a makeup course in February, Chief Clerk Dana Rademan Miller said.
The Senate uses a computer-based video training session. New lawmakers and staff signed up for individual training slots in January, with the others to complete the course by the May end of the legislative session, said Senate Administrator Patrick Baker.
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