Legislature updating sexual harassment policies

Pete Schwartzkopf

DOVER — In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against several members of Congress, both chambers of the Delaware General Assembly are updating their policies.

The Senate and House of Representatives plans to change their formal rules to explicitly forbid sexual harassment, and each chamber is also modernizing the guidelines set forth in the handbooks given to all employees at the state capitol.

“I have an obligation to make sure the people who work in that building have a safe experience in that building,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said.

While neither Rep. Schwartzkopf nor Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, who have a combined 54 years in the General Assembly, could recall any instances of sexual harassment in Legislative Hall, over the past few months myriad women around the country have shared stories of being harassed or even assaulted.

Since October, numerous high-profile men have been accused of sexual misconduct, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein, TV host Matt Lauer, actor Kevin Spacey, U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

“Sexual harassment is a huge problem not just in the workplace but in society as a whole,” Sen. McBride said. “It’s my feeling that government needs to lead by example and hold ourselves to the highest standard.”

The leaders of the House majority and minority caucuses sent out a joint memo to all representatives and chamber employees three weeks ago informing them the House will be setting up anti-harassment training, which will be conducted “on an annual basis moving forward.”

The House’s new policy will lay out in greater detail the reporting process, Rep. Schwartzkopf said. The General Assembly has adopted the policies used by state agencies, but because the Legislature has a different structure than the departments that fall under the executive branch, there was some confusion about how it worked.

“The question is, do they work for me or do they work for (Sean Finnigan), the chief of staff?” Rep. Schwartzkopf said of House employees.

Under the new procedure, anyone with a complaint can go either to the chief of staff or to another person, although attorneys are currently working on drafting the exact language.

There would be a mandatory reporting protocol, meaning someone “can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s not that big a deal. Go away,’” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Once a complaint is received, Rep. Schwartzkopf will begin an investigation. He will have the authority to hire someone to look into the case, and if the House speaker is the one accused of misconduct, the policy will spell out who will instead handle the issue.

Anything judged to go beyond harassment to the level of a crime would be reported to law enforcement.

In the Senate, the rules will be updated to make it clear sexual harassment by anyone in the chamber — ranging from lawmakers to lobbyists — is forbidden and can be harshly punished.

The chamber plans a zero tolerance policy, according to Sen. McBride.

The Senate’s current procedure, included in the employee handbook, says accusations should be reported to a supervisor, who will then contact the appropriate person in charge of handling investigations.

Sen. McBride said he hopes anyone with allegations of harassment against someone in the Senate comes to him, at which point he would consult with a Senate attorney.

The exact punishment for any allegations that are corroborated by an investigation would vary. Employees could be suspended or fired, for instance, while a legislator could be fined, removed from committees or even expelled from the General Assembly.

Any lawmaker accused of misconduct would have their case handled by their respective chamber’s ethics committee.

The General Assembly currently has the power to boot a member, but it is rarely used.

While the congressional Office of Compliance reported two weeks ago 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 they were unaware of any financial settlements involving sexual harassment in the General Assembly.

“I would like to think that it is not an issue in Leg Hall,” Sen. McBride said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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