Government & Politics

Video: Missouri lawmaker says House mishandled her sexual harassment complaint

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat

A Democratic lawmaker says her sexual harassment complaint against a legislative colleague was mishandled by the Missouri House.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, first made her allegations public in January 2017, accusing Rep. Josh Peters, a St. Louis Democrat, of touching her inappropriately and later calling her a “bitch.”

Chappelle-Nadal filed a complaint with the Missouri House ethics committee, but it was dismissed in February 2017.

Peters, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, denied Chappelle-Nadal’s accusations at the time. He later told the Associated Press that he was admonished by the ethics committee, and he acknowledged that he had cursed at Chappelle-Nadal.

Thursday morning, Chappelle-Nadal released a video documenting three instances when she says she was sexually harassed in the Capitol during her legislative career.

The 20-minute video shows the senator returning to the scenes of her previous sexual harassment, culminating with a taped conversation between Chappelle-Nadal and the Missouri House’s counsel, David Welch, in which she is informed of her complaint being dismissed.

Welch says in the recording that the committee felt Chappelle-Nadal’s claims were “unsubstantiated,” although he did acknowledge a second legislator confirmed that Peters called her a “bitch.”

“The investigation then talked about the legal analysis required and sexual harassment, and that it must be severe or pervasive enough for the reasonable person to say that it would create (an) unfriendly working environment,” Welch says in the recording.

“Based on a reasonable person, could they work in that environment with that kind of behavior. The committee determined that on one account, the use of that word was not severe or pervasive enough to go further, so they dismissed the complaint.”

Chappelle-Nadal alleges that after the 2017 state of the judiciary speech, Peters grabbed her arms in a “forceful embrace” that was “unwarranted and unwanted,” calling her “boo,” and later, “bitch.”

The House implemented new sexual harassment policies in 2015, following the resignation of former Speaker John Diehl over revelations he sent sexually suggestive text messages to a college student serving as a House intern.

The House sexual harassment policy requires complaints involving lawmakers to be investigated by private attorneys who submit their findings to the House Ethics Committee, a panel of five Republican and five Democratic representatives. Complaints involving staff are handled internally.

Chappelle-Nadal gained national attention after she was censured last year by the Missouri Senate over a Facebook comment she posted hoping for the assassination of President Donald Trump. She deleted the comment and publicly apologized for posting it.

Asked why she wanted to release the video, which was paid for by her campaign, Chappelle-Nadal said she “never became whole after my complaint was dismissed.”

“No one took me seriously. Ever," she said. "They did not.”

Adam Crumbliss, chief clerk of the Missouri House, said in a statement to The Star that the House has taken numerous steps in recent years to "ensure complaints are handled seriously, expeditiously, fairly and with due process. I appreciate the efforts by those to stand up and speak out against sexual harassment."

He said that while Chappelle-Nadal doesn't agree with the ethics committee's decision, the House established a process in which "complaints against a member are received confidentially, investigated fully by external counsel and presented to a committee comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats for determination."

Crumbliss said he would appreciate input from Chappelle-Nadal about ways to improve the process.

Chappelle-Nadal said she hopes the video might inspire others to speak out.

“I’m an elected official who has been sexually harassed multiple times," she said. "Think about what’s happening to people who don’t have the title of senator or representative.

“I needed closure,” she added, “but I also wanted to teach people who come into this building that they don’t have to accept this type of behavior. That’s why I did it.”