APNewsBreak: Report says Montana lawmaker harassed colleague
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — An outside investigation found that a Montana legislator sent a female lawmaker harassing text messages in 2017, leading the Democrat to resign his committee chairmanship before it could be stripped from him, a former House speaker said Friday.
The Legislature’s Legal Services Office released a redacted copy of the March 2018 investigative report by Great Falls attorney Jean Faure that recommended legislative leaders take action against the lawmaker who sent the texts between August and October 2017 before the harassment could happen again.
The report obtained by The Associated Press through a public-records request prompted initially reluctant lawmakers to advance a new policy approved this month that created a confidential system to report and investigate harassment, discrimination and retaliation claims.
Ex-House Speaker Austin Knudsen, a Culbertson Republican, confirmed to the AP that Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, was the legislator named in the report and that he and other legislative leaders from both parties discussed how they should discipline Windy Boy.
“There was discussion about taking harsher action, but legally nobody had any authority to do anything,” said Knudsen, who is no longer in the Legislature. “We couldn’t remove him from office, we couldn’t censure him because we weren’t in session. I, as speaker of the House, had the authority to remove him (as committee chairman).”
Democratic legislative leaders requested to be allowed to speak to Windy Boy before any disciplinary action was taken, Knudsen said. Windy Boy resigned as chairman of the State-Tribal Relations Committee shortly after that, Knudsen said.
A legislative newsletter from April 2018 said Windy Boy resigned from the committee “due to work-related commitments.” Windy Boy, who has represented the district that includes the Rocky Boys Indian Reservation since 2003, was re-elected last November.
Windy Boy declined to comment before the House floor session on Friday. He referred questions to his attorney.
House Democratic leaders said in a statement that they were “shocked and disappointed to learn that a member of our caucus, an elected official in a position of power, harassed another individual.”
“This behavior is completely unacceptable,” the statement written by the minority party’s leaders and released by spokeswoman Monica Robinson said.
The report redacted names of the lawmakers and witnesses, citing privacy interests, but detailed most of the text messages sent to the female lawmaker between mid-August and October 2017.
Those messages called the recipient “gorgeous” and a “wonderful sight for My Sore Eyes.” In one exchange, the complainant was concerned about overstepping boundaries in resolving an issue. The offender responded: “Well. Just know, between you and me. You can step all over me and there is no boundaries.”
The report stated the offender was “in a position of influence and power.”
“The offensive conduct is subtle but evident,” Faure wrote. “A pattern of these behaviors appears established.”
The investigator wrote that the situation was likely to repeat itself and recommended legislative leadership take action. Faure recommended a written warning and training “at a minimum.”
The AP requested the report after current and former legislative leaders revealed earlier this month that a revamped anti-harassment policy for the Legislature had advanced because of a previously undisclosed harassment allegation.
Earlier this month, the Legislature passed the new policy on reporting and investigating harassment, discrimination and retaliation involving lawmakers and legislative employees. It allows for confidential reporting and investigation of claims and sets penalties for violators.
Knudsen said the investigation’s results showed him the need for the new policy. “That certainly turned my vote around,” he said.
Senate President Scott Sales said he knew the complaint involved Windy Boy, but he didn’t handle it because it involved a member of the House, not the Senate.
In late 2017, Sales had argued the Legislature didn’t need a new anti-harassment policy, but he changed his mind and voted for it. He said Friday that the Windy Boy case “did influence my decision to some extent.”
Jenny Eck, a former lawmaker who was the leader of the House Democrats until last year and who co-authored the new harassment policy, said legislative attorneys advised her not to comment.
The victim made the complaint against Windy Boy in January 2018 after reading a news article about sexual harassment in the Legislature, Faure’s report said. Either the victim or another person sent the offender a message on Jan. 9, 2018, that the past text messages were inappropriate and should “cease and desist,” the report said.
The offender responded with an apology and said that if the “behavior came across as inappropriate, it would never happen again.”
Faure’s report also indicated the offender sent text messages to a legislative staffer in January and February 2017 which said: “You looked beautiful yesterday” and another that said: “BTW you look gorgeous today.” The staffer apparently mentioned the text messages to someone and was told to “steer clear” of that lawmaker.
Any further text messages from the lawmaker to the staffer “were strictly professional,” the report said.