Government & Politics

Harassment at Kansas Capitol: Staffer says she was told ‘nothing was going to change’

A former Kansas legislative staffer has alleged Democratic leaders failed to investigate concerns about sexual harassment and female interns serving as designated drivers for male lawmakers.
A former Kansas legislative staffer has alleged Democratic leaders failed to investigate concerns about sexual harassment and female interns serving as designated drivers for male lawmakers. Neil Nakahodo

A former Kansas legislative staff member has alleged that Democratic leaders failed to investigate concerns about sexual harassment and female interns serving as designated drivers for male lawmakers who had been drinking.

Abbie Hodgson said in 2016 she learned from an intern that numerous Democratic lawmakers were relying on college interns for rides home after lobbyist-hosted cocktail parties and dinners.

She immediately raised concerns to her boss, state Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Kan., Democrat who was serving as minority leader of the Kansas House at the time, Hodgson said.

“I expressed my shock, concern and outrage to Rep. Burroughs and asked if he was going to do anything about it. He said no,” Hodgson said in an interview with The Star Wednesday.

Burroughs confirmed that Hodgson alerted him to the situation, but disputed her claims that he failed to address the issue.

“I took immediate action when it was brought to the leadership’s attention that interns were being...used as drivers for members of the Legislature,” he said. “I immediately called a leadership meeting. The leadership team met. We took action, said it if it was occurring that it needed to stop immediately and from our understanding, there were no more incidents involved.”

Burroughs said he did not know about the interns driving male lawmakers around after hours before then.

“If I’d have known about it then, I’d have called a meeting when I was told about it,” Burroughs said.

Hodgson, 36, said that as Burroughs’ chief of staff she was in charge of overseeing the interns for House Democrats and that she was concerned for the interns’ safety because the male lawmakers were some that she considered “predatory toward women.”

The former legislative staffer, who now works for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said that she confronted several male lawmakers about it directly and “was told it wasn’t my business.”

Hodgson said that after she raised concerns to other Democratic leaders beyond Burroughs, she had a meeting with two lawmakers that she considered an attempt to intimidate her.

“I was told to watch my back… I was told people were watching me,” she said “I was told legislators are accountable to no one but the voters.”

Hodgson identified Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, as being one of the only lawmakers who was supportive of her efforts to address the issue.

“My concern there was they had interns who were taking legislators home when they had been drinking,” Trimmer said. “And I agreed that wasn’t appropriate.”

Trimmer said that interns are there to learn about the legislative process and that having them serve as chauffeurs for drunk lawmakers “puts them in a very bad spot.” He said he was not aware of any incidents of lawmakers relying on interns for rides in the year since Hodgson raised the issue.

Burdett Loomis, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas, has run the University of Kansas’ legislative intern program in Topeka for more than 30 years. He said the program in Topeka usually contains 15 to 20 students every spring. Most work directly for a legislator.

Loomis said he’s never heard of interns being used as designated drivers, as Hodgson alleges. But he did say he is aware of interns attending social events with lawmakers.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he said. “And we do tell them that the social environment is part of the internship, or part of Topeka. On the other hand, if you’re underage, don’t drink and be very, very careful. But we don’t want to discourage them from understanding at least a little bit about, you know, how people operate over there.”

He said he’s never personally had a complaint from a KU intern about sexual harassment. If an intern were to file a complaint, both the university and the Legislature would have to investigate, he said.

“That doesn’t mean things have not happened,” he said. “That doesn’t mean women have not been in uncomfortable situations. But I’ve never, no one has ever said anything to me in any way here.”

Hodgson had experienced sexual harassment herself in 2015 when a male lawmaker propositioned her for sex at a Democratic fundraiser, she said.

“I was at a fundraiser. He said it in front of other individuals,” she said. “I was shocked. He was married. He told me that no one had ever said no before.”

Asked if he was aware of this incident, Burroughs paused for roughly 20 seconds before answering.

“Rumors abound. I hear things as everybody else does within the Capitol. If it comes to me, I will take action,” he said. “I have demonstrated I take action and Abbie knows if she was to bring something to me it would have been addressed. It was clearly demonstrated that I do address it, the leadership team knows I address it, and for that matter, even HR knows I will address it.”

Women around the country have alleged sexual harassment at statehouses.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, female lawmakers and staffers in California have spoken out about the culture of sexual harassment in the California Statehouse.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has spoken out about the sexual harassment she faced during her time as a state legislator in Jefferson City.

The Star uncovered in 2015 that Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, had sent sexually explicit text messages to a female intern. In addition, female interns accused Missouri Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, of sexual harassment.

Both men resigned.

Hodgson is one of the first women to go on record about her experience in Kansas.

“When I told my mom that I talked to a reporter, the first thing she said to me is you’ll never work in Kansas again, which is really sad because I want to,” Hodgson said.

She said that female staffers who work for both political parties have faced similar problems.

Elise Higgins, who served as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood from 2014 to 2017, said that she has also faced sexual harassment during her time at the Statehouse.

“A Democratic state senator would hug me for an inappropriately long time when I was alone with him in his office,” Higgins said. “I felt uncomfortable with the length of our hugs almost every time they happened. The same senator openly looked at my cleavage during events inside and outside the Capitol and I felt I had to choose between confronting unacceptable behavior and maintaining a very short list of allies for reproductive rights.”

In addition, she said that a high-ranking House Democrat called her pretty girl during a meeting, “commented on how my body looked in my dress and multiple times throughout my career as a lobbyist commented on the fact that I was or was not smiling. And recommended that I smile more.”

Higgins would not name either lawmaker for fear of retribution.

Hodgson also declined to identify the lawmaker who propositioned her or the lawmakers who allegedly relied on interns for rides, but she strongly spoke out against inaction by Burroughs and other Democratic leaders.

“I met him for breakfast a couple of days later and I said things needed to change. Not only was the behavior unacceptable, but the response from leadership was unacceptable,” she said. “Tom told me nothing was going to change.”

Burroughs claimed in an earlier interview with The Hill that “there’s no formal procedures when allegations of that type come forward,” but that he takes these issues seriously.

However, the Legislature’s policies lay out specific guidelines for how sexual harassment complaints should be handled.

Any legislative employee may file a complaint with their direct supervisor. Hodgson’s direct supervisor would have been Burroughs.

If the alleged harasser is an employee’s direct supervisor, then the complaint should be filed directly with the head of Legislative Administrative Services.

Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, described the process to The Star Wednesday morning.

“They would contact their supervisor and then their supervisor would contact me,” Day said. “And then we would investigate it from that point.”

Day said that once the complainant fills out a form there’s an obligation to investigate the complaint. “We do them as discretely as possible.”

He said that a complaint could result in a requirement to attend a sexual harassment seminar or in immediate termination if the person is a legislative employee. The Legislature has their own kind of rules, Day said, that would also have to be taken into consideration as far as censure and discipline actions of that legislator.

Day has served in his role since January 2015. When asked whether during his time in the role he had received any complaints alleging sexual harassment, he responded, “I have had a conversation with one individual, yes.”

“Since my time I have had one formal complaint, yes,” he said. 

When asked to confirm whether that complaint was indeed concerning sexual harassment, Day answered, “Possibly.”

Hodgson said that she did not take the complaints about the intern program to Day’s office, but that his office did investigate a previous complaint when a lawmaker threatened her. She said that incident was not sexual and occurred because the lawmaker was frustrated with Burroughs, her boss.

Burroughs held the position of Kansas House minority leader for the 2015 and 2016 sessions. Hodgson stepped down from her position in his office in July of 2016, shortly before that year’s primary election. Burroughs did not win re-election as minority leader for the 2017 legislative session.

She said that the dispute over the interns factored into her decision to leave, but that other issues, including disagreements over election strategy, played a role.

“Tom told me that he didn’t think I respected him and he didn’t think he could work with me after the intern incident,” she said.

Burroughs disputed the exchange.

“That's an inaccurate statement,” he said. “Again, it's a personnel issue. Ms. Hodgson knows why she left, and that's an inaccurate statement.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward’s office did not directly address the specific allegations against House Democrats, but said in an email that Democratic leadership “does not tolerate acts of sexual harassment. It should not occur in our state capitol, any workplace, or society-at-large. There is an established formal procedure at the Capitol if allegations are made. These procedures protect the person or persons making the charges. If allegations are brought to the leadership, these procedures are followed immediately and exactly.”

Ward, a Wichita Democrat and a candidate for governor, noted that he was not a part of the party’s leadership team at the time that Hodgson was employed in Burroughs’ office, but said that he trusts that Burroughs handled the situation according to the Legislature’s policies.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the statehouse after being read Hodgson’s allegations.

“And I will do everything in my power to make sure that it doesn't happen in the future,” he said. “You know, maybe it's time for a communication to the membership pointing out to them that they will not have the support of anyone if they stray into that area.”

Hineman’s office and the rest of House GOP leadership put out an additional statement saying that “complaints are investigated and handled as discretely as possible to ensure that those who come forward are not subject to further exposure or harassment and to allow a fair and just process in investigating relevant facts.”

Will Lawrence, the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, said in an email that the Senate Democratic office takes any allegations of misconduct seriously and follows the Legislature’s guidelines in investigating them.

“We did have to use that process during the 2017 session,” he said, noting that the alleged perpetrator involved in the complaint was not a lawmaker. “I was notified of the incident and we immediately began interviewing all individuals involved. Within 48 hours we made a decision and took action. Because the individual worked for a news station outside the building, we then notified the individual's employer.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and the highest-ranking woman in Kansas government, said in an email that she has not received any sexual harassment complaints during her five years as the president of the Kansas Senate.

“As a woman, I know how difficult and oppressive these situations can become,” she said. “I won’t stand for it - period!”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw