And that shows we are not even near the end of the beginning of clearing out the backlog of bad behavior.
“What takes place or what is said in any given office stays there,” says the form that all new interns in Topeka are required to sign as a condition of employment.
You know, just like what happens in Vegas …
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If the intended message is that politics is a shady business, and that speaking up to report wrongdoing is not allowed by our elected leaders, then the agreement is a great document.
Not surprisingly, that’s exactly the message that was received.
Sneha Verma, who is 18, told The Star that being made to sign such an agreement last year “made me feel like there was like some very dark politics.”
The consequences for piping up were made clear enough: “Any breach of this confidentiality agreement will constitute immediate termination and permanent disqualification from the Kansas Legislative Intern Program.”
Even the agreement itself was secret — and only discovered through an open records request by The Star.
The more benign explanation is that the policy was designed to let interns know not to divulge office business. But the way to accomplish that is to treat interns like the young professionals they are and simply talk to them about the importance of discretion.
And if the intent was benign, why did Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, whose office helps run the internship program, initially reject the open records request? Then drag his feet, and then only partly comply?
Schwab is running for secretary of state, and his office did put out a statement defending the policy as “similar to a non-disclosure agreement in which official, policy-related discussions or documents exchanged between a legislator and an intern remain confidential within the respective legislative office.”
Non-disclosure agreements have been a useful tool for serial harassers like Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, used to keep the women who’ve sued them and settled with them from speaking out.
Interns don’t forfeit their First Amendment rights, though they seem to have been expected to do just that.
The proof of how misbegotten the agreement is is that Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, whose office is responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints, said he can’t ever remember receiving one from an intern.
As we’ve learned in recent years, zero reports doesn’t mean there’s no problem, but on the contrary that reporting is too daunting or dangerous.
The confidentiality agreements should be scrapped. Or at a minimum, spell out that harassment or any other criminal behavior is excluded, and that instead of “staying in the office,” violations ought to be reported at once.
The updated 2018 intern handbook does explain how to report sexual harassment, but that message is undercut by the confidentiality agreement.
Missouri’s Legislative Intern Handbook needs revising, too.
It says, “Sensitive matters are often discussed by legislators and other staff in the presence of interns. This is a sign of trust. No intern shall ever divulge confidential information for any reason. There are no exceptions.”
Under the law, however, there are exceptions, and those exceptions must be made clear.