Legislators developing new sexual harassment procedures

 

DOVER — Both chambers of the Delaware General Assembly are working to develop new sexual harassment protocols in the wake of allegations against dozens of celebrities, including a handful of federal lawmakers.

The House of Representatives expects to develop rules for legislators by the end of the month, while the Senate is working to create similar, if not identical, rules.

Policies for staffers will also be revised.

In the House, the rules will be in place by the end of the month, as will the staff policy, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said.

“If we have something that’s wrong, I want to fix it,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride also plans to update the Senate rules to add clear guidelines against sexual harassment. The rules must be passed in each chamber as legislation, while the policies for staffers can be approved without any votes.

Numerous high-profile men, ranging from members of Congress to Hollywood stars, have been accused of sexual harassment over the past three months, starting with movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Several members of Congress have resigned over allegations, including Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Trent Franks.

The House rules would formalize a process for disciplining a member for sexual misconduct, with punishment that could include expulsion. Currently, the House uses the statewide policy, which exists in the handbooks given to staff, but there is no separate procedure for lawmakers.

Rep. Schwartzkopf, who has been speaker for five years and a representative for 15, said he does not know of any instances of misconduct while he has been in office but “you’d be really stupid … or naive to sit here and think things don’t happen.”

Under the new rules, any complaint of sexual misconduct would trigger an investigation, with a police agency potentially being contacted depending on the severity. Investigations would be completed “in a very timely manner,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

The accused would appear before the House Ethics Committee in a closed-door hearing and, if a majority votes in favor, the case would go to the full chamber. At that point, the other 40 members of the House would vote whether to enact some type of punishment.

The rules would designate several “points of contact,” such as the chief of staff and chief clerk of the House, who then report the complaint to the speaker of the House (or the majority leader if the speaker is the one accused).

“I don’t want a person sitting in my chair to have any discretion at all when it comes to a complaint made against a legislator for sexual harassment,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. “Technically, if something came in right now, I could downplay it.”

The rules being developed by the Senate vary somewhat, although Sen. McBride said he hopes the chambers adopt identical guidelines.

Upon being informed of any misconduct, Sen. McBride would consult a Senate attorney, who would be empowered to hire an outside team to investigate the claim. The attorney would also be able to contact police if necessary, Sen. McBride said, although he noted he does not want to deprive anyone of due process.

Upon conclusion of the investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee would convene to review the findings. Punishment could include expulsion.

“If I just get a sniff of something about this, I’m all over it. There will be none of that on my watch,” Sen. McBride said.

He emphasized numerous times in an interview he has “zero tolerance” for any sort of misconduct and said he is unaware of any occurrences involving senators or Senate staff.

“I have talked to people individually around this building and convinced myself nothing’s going on but, again, when I read the national news, I don’t know if I’m right or not,” Sen. McBride, who has been in the General Assembly for 39 years, said. “It’s incredible.”

In the Senate, the rules may not be passed before legislators recess at the end of the month until March.

The leaders of the House majority and minority caucuses sent out a joint memo to all representatives and chamber employees in November informing them the House would be setting up anti-harassment training, to be conducted “on an annual basis moving forward.” House employees recently underwent online training, and representatives are scheduled to receive in-person lessons from an outside firm Thursday.

The Senate currently has voluntary sexual harassment training for staff, which Sen. McBride aims to make mandatory.

In the House, an individual would be able to file a formal complaint, which would trigger an investigation and any subsequent discipline, or an informal complaint. An informal complaint, Rep. Schwartzkopf said, might stem from a joke someone overheard and found offensive and could simply involve one of the “points of contact” warning the person in question.

In the event of a frequent visitor other than a lawmaker or employee of the Legislature, such as a lobbyist, being accused of harassment, legislators could ban the individual from Legislative Hall — something they currently are able to do.

Asked whether the individual accused of harassment would be informed who made the complaint, Rep. Schwartzkopf noted the policy was still being drafted, while Sen. McBride said the alleged harasser would not be told.

The congressional Office of Compliance reported in November it has paid out about $17.2 million over 264 claims of harassment and other issues in the past 20 years. Both Rep. Schwartzkopf and Sen. McBride said last month they were unaware of any financial settlements involving sexual harassment in the General Assembly.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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