Sexual harassment complaints against state legislators would automatically trigger an investigation by an outside attorney, and romantic fraternization between lawmakers, staff and interns would be banned under a series of policy recommendations laid out Friday by House Speaker Todd Richardson.
The proposals come a little more than five months after former Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign from the Missouri General Assembly after The Star revealed he’d engaged in a sexually charged relationship with a 19-year-old House intern.
Richardson said the recommendations are designed to improve the culture of the Missouri Capitol. They are the result of months of behind-closed-doors discussion among members of a legislative task force, House attorneys and officials from institutions of higher education and the Women’s Foundation in Kansas City.
“The message that should be clear from this policy is we intend to create a better environment in Jefferson City than the one that has been there,” Richardson said in an interview with The Star on Friday afternoon.
A new ombudsman position will also be created. The person will serve as liaison between interns, House administration and universities. In the case of sexual harassment involving an intern, the ombudsman will be a designated, mandated reporter and must report all such allegations to House administration or, alternatively, to the Missouri Human Rights Commission in writing.
The recommendations also include a provision that requires students wishing to intern in the Capitol to receive approval from a House committee. There is currently no centralized system for placing students in legislative offices. It’s worked out between lawmakers and universities.
Robynn Kuhlmann, the state government internship coordinator at the University of Central Missouri, called the proposals “a good start.”
“It is recognizing that there is a problem,” she said. “If the status quo is such that there were obvious problems in terms of sexual harassment, the fact that it’s being acknowledged that there needs to be some change is movement in the appropriate direction.”
One recommendation Kuhlmann would like to see implemented would be to somehow provide an outside resource to students that is not a mandated reporter. The concern, she said, is a student may need an outlet to help process what’s happened to them before they are ready to report anything.
“In situations like this, organizations tend to emerge to support students,” Kuhlmann said. “I’m hopeful that can happen here to provide some sort of pressure valve for the student where they could discuss any issues before they report it.”
Richardson said the policy recommendations will now go to the House Administration and Accounts Committee, where they will be reviewed and receive a public hearing.
“I plan to distribute the proposed policies to the committee and then allow extensive input from the committee members and from the public to make sure we get this right,” said Mike Leara, a St. Louis Republican who chairs the Administrations and Accounts Committee. “Final policy changes should be completed and voted on by the committee no later than Dec. 1.”
Richardson appointed a task force to study the House’s intern policy after Diehl’s relationship with an intern forced him to resign in disgrace.
A few weeks later, Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota of Independence resigned following accusations of sexual harassment from a pair of former interns.
Meantime, dozens of women told The Star that sexual harassment has been rampant in the Missouri Capitol for years.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, criticized Richardson for lack of progress on a new intern policy in a letter to the speaker last week, arguing that universities were beginning to place interns for the upcoming legislative session.
“It is vital for the House to develop and implement effective policies to help protect interns without further delay,” the letter read.
Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff, has said repairing the legislature’s tarnished image following a year of sex scandals is his top priority.
“It was more important for us to get this right than to get it fast,” he said. “I wanted this to be a thorough, substantive review, and I wanted to make substantive suggestions. We were willing to take the criticism for moving too slowly to ensure we got it right.”
In a written statement released with the proposed changes, Richardson said the changes aren’t a “cure all,” but they are substantive steps.
“I want to be perfectly clear,” he said. “While I am speaker, sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”
Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, commended Richardson’s efforts to “address inappropriate behavior towards Capitol interns.”
“Speaker Richardson and the Women’s Foundation listened to Missouri women, incorporated their ideas, and remains committed to changing the culture of the Capitol,” Doyle said in a written statement.
Kuhlmann said Central Missouri usually sends five to 15 interns to the Capitol every legislative session. The deadline for this year’s internship program is next week, she said, and so far interest from students hasn’t been hurt by the string of statehouse scandals.
“What we’ve seen over the last few months has certainly heightened my alert,” she said. “At the same time, there have been so many excellent experiences in the past for our students.”
Summary of Proposed Changes
1. Mandatory annual conduct and ethics training for House members that includes sexual harassment policy and procedures.
2. Mandatory annual staff training that includes sexual harassment policy and procedures.
3. Formal prohibition on romantic fraternization between members, staff and interns.
4. Sexual harassment complaints that involve House members or the chief clerk require investigation by outside counsel.
5. Create additional levels of oversight by placing the administration of the intern program under the House Administration Division.
a) Intern handbook
b) Intern training
c) Provide intern ombudsman as an advocate and coordinator
d) Retain majority and minority party members intern coordinator who ensures member and intern compliance with policies.
e) Sending universities intern policies must be reviewed and approved by House Committee on Administration and Accounts. Sub-committee of Administration and Accounts reviews intern placement.
6. Provide additional options for harassment reporting by expanding the list of mandated reporters to include all leadership staff.
7. Review of intern policies done annually with intern-sending institutions by intern ombudsman