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Missouri House committee adopts changes to sexual harassment and intern policies

A Missouri House committee voted Thursday to adopt a number of new policies regarding its intern program in the wake of sexual harassment scandals involving legislators.
A Missouri House committee voted Thursday to adopt a number of new policies regarding its intern program in the wake of sexual harassment scandals involving legislators.

A Missouri House committee on Thursday voted to ban relationships between elected state representatives and legislative staff or interns and adopt a formalized framework for Capitol internships.

The vote came nearly six months since Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign from the Missouri General Assembly after The Star revealed he had engaged in a sexually charged relationship with a 19-year-old House intern.

In addition to the intern policy and ban on fraternization, the committee voted to mandate annual sexual harassment training for legislators and create an ombudsman position to serve as a liaison between interns, House administration and universities.

The committee also voted to expand the list of legislators and staff who are “mandated reporters,” meaning that if they hear about or are told of inappropriate conduct, they must alert proper authorities.

The changes adopted Thursday by the House Administration and Accounts Committee do not need full House approval and will take effect immediately.

“Everyone involved wants to make this a better place than they found it,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican. “The ultimate purpose should be protecting interns in this building, and this policy goes a long way to doing that.”

But over the course of nearly two hours of public testimony from university administrators, state representatives and a former House intern, some concerns with the new policy emerged.

The biggest point of contention was the expanded list of mandated reporters.

Taylor Hirth — one of two former legislative interns whose allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Paul LeVota this summer forced him to resign — worried that victims of sexual harassment may be hesitant to speak up if they know their conversation will automatically result in a formal investigation.

“As an intern who experienced unwanted sexual attention from a legislator, I had no desire to talk to anybody who might take our private conversations to anybody else without my consent,” she said. “Having spoken to other interns who have had similar experiences, I can assure you that things said in confidence need to remain in confidence until the victim is ready to seek further assistance.”

Robynn Kuhlmann, the state government internship coordinator at the University of Central Missouri, echoed those concerns. The second intern who alleged sexual harassment by LeVota was a UCM student.

“I’ve witnessed over the last 10 months the internal agony of victims of sexual harassment, and it breaks my heart,” she said. “There should be some sort of mechanism or resources provided to (interns) if they aren’t ready for the onslaught of statements they may have to make during an investigation process.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who says she suffered sexual harassment when she served in the Missouri General Assembly decades ago, has suggested establishing a hotline for Capitol interns to call for help.

Adam Crumbliss, chief clerk of the Missouri House, agreed that there must be a “safe harbor” for victims, but “it can’t be a House employee who is shielded from reporting.”

Hirth thinks it should be pretty simple.

“If you see something, you should be expected to say something,” she said. “If you are told something in confidence, it should not be a requirement that you take that information elsewhere without that person’s consent.”

House Democrats had openly complained about how long it took for recommended changes to be released to the public following Diehl’s and LeVota’s resignations. They also expressed concern that the work on the policies was done behind closed doors.

On Thursday, Democrats on the committee objected to taking a vote so quickly after the very first public hearing.

Rep. Michele Kratky, a St. Louis Democrat, hoped to hold off any vote until some of the concerns addressed in the public testimony could be addressed.

But Rep. Mike Leara, a St. Louis Republican who chairs the House Administration and Accounts Committee, insisted that a vote take place immediately and that any issues with the policies could be addressed at a future hearing,

“I’m open to making tweaks,” he said, “but my goal is to get these policies in place as soon as possible.”

Kratky was ultimately the only “no” vote on any of the policy changes.

One proposal the committee did not adopt Thursday would mandate that any sexual harassment complaint against a legislator be investigated by an outside attorney. Leara said because that is a change of a formal House rule, it must be voted on by the full House when it reconvenes in January.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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