A growing chorus of Kansas Statehouse leaders is calling for revisions in a sweeping confidentiality agreement that legislative interns must sign.
A Star investigation last month found that interns are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that employment law attorneys warned could have a chilling effect on interns’ willingness to report harassment or illegal activity.
Anything that takes place or is said in a lawmaker’s office must stay there, the document says, under threat of immediate termination.
“It essentially was drafted in a different era,” House Majority Leader Don Hineman said Thursday night during a town hall sponsored by The Star and the Kansas Press Association. “We are certainly in a different era right now in regards to the me-too movement and sexual harassment.
“And as we look back at that policy, we see it’s no longer appropriate,” said Hineman, a Dighton Republican. “It’s drafted too broadly. We need to tighten it up to make sure that (the non-disclosure agreement) only covers legislative business and not personal business and certainly nothing with regard to sexual harassment.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said Friday that he supports changing the confidentiality policy.
“We need to clear some things up,” he said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said the confidentiality agreement has already been sent to the revisor’s office.
“We’ve already asked for a rewrite,” she said. “... Revisors are buried right now in writing new bills, but I’m sure it’s a priority and hopefully it’ll come soon.”
Behavior toward interns in the Capitol became a focal point in state politics last fall after a former Democratic staffer revealed that during the 2016 session, female interns had been asked to serve as designated drivers for male lawmakers who had been drinking.
The Star also revealed that legislative interns and other young women in the Kansas Capitol have faced sexual advances and lewd comments from lawmakers of both parties.
“What takes place or what is said in any given office stays there, as legislators rely on your help with their legislative duties,” the confidentiality agreement says. “It is essential that the confidentiality of any such information be maintained.
“Any breach of this confidentiality agreement will constitute immediate termination and permanent disqualification from the Kansas Legislative Intern Program.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab’s office plays a key role in administering the legislative internship program. The office released the confidentiality agreement to The Star in response to an open records request.
Schwab’s office initially denied the request but provided some records after being contacted by the newspaper’s attorney. The office noted it was unable to answer questions about when interns were first asked to sign a confidentiality agreement or whose idea it was. The document predates Schwab’s tenure as pro tem.
“We do not know the date or reasoning such measures were created or implemented,” his office said in an earlier statement.
In the days after The Star’s story, Schwab’s office was silent. It wasn’t until several days later that the Olathe Republican publicly addressed the story in a House GOP caucus meeting.
“Our office has been under a lot of fire, and some of it’s unjust and unholy,” Schwab told the House GOP caucus the Wednesday after the story was published, adding that the statehouse has a “great internship program.”
When a Star reporter approached him after his remarks to the GOP caucus, Schwab declined to be interviewed.
“When you offer a public apology, then I’ll talk to you,” he said.
Schwab’s office did issue a statement Friday: “We have been and will continue to be in communication with our attorneys and intern caucus coordinators regarding the program’s documents, including the intern confidentiality agreement, to ensure the safety and protection of every legislative intern, both now and for the future.”
His office declined to respond to subsequent questions.
Schwab’s counterpart in the Senate, Vice President Jeff Longbine, said he supported “whatever our attorneys tell us that they feel needs to be done.”
“If they say it’s fine, then I will side towards it’s fine,” he said. “If they say it needs to be changed, then I’ll support changing it. But it’s up to the attorneys, not me.”
Lauren Tice Miller, the spokeswoman and caucus intern coordinator for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, released her own statement Friday.
“We have been in conversation with the Speaker Pro Tem’s Office and agree that the intern confidentiality agreement should be changed,” she said. “We will continue to work with all leadership offices and the Revisor’s Office to implement the necessary changes.”
Schwab’s statement came after the Legislative Coordinating Council, featuring Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, signed off on a revised sexual harassment policy. The new policy gives details how interns can file sexual harassment complaints.
But even those revisions, the council admitted, were just a first step.