With the raft of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct complaints by powerful men roiling across Hollywood, the TV news industry and government in recent weeks, we were ready to applaud Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ call for a mandatory meeting for Wisconsin legislative staff to discuss the process for reporting inappropriate behavior.
But in short order we were left with one hand clapping — a whiff — when Republican leaders in both the Senate and Assembly agreed that such complaints against lawmakers and their staff members and the results of any investigations into them will remain secret.
“The goal of an internal process is to make sure that every single person who feels that they were a victim of some kind of harassment or sexual harassment has a way to go to be able to report it to somebody, have some confidentiality, have it investigated, because frankly, if the allegations are untrue, we want to ensure people have the right to their own privacy with a false accusation, but also if they are true, we want to make sure that the victim is protected,” Vos told a Madison newspaper.
We understand that protecting the reputation of a lawmaker who might be falsely accused is something that the Legislature is concerned with. But they should also be concerned with the working climate at the Capitol and their responsibility to let the public know when such charges are substantiated and what actions have been taken.
“I understand sometimes in the zeal of the press you don’t really worry about naming the victims and all those kinds of things,” Vos said. “Our job is to ensure that people who want to come forward feel safe and that they are confident that we will treat it with the respect and due diligence they deserve.”
That ranks up there in the “pants on fire” scale on the fib-o-meter. The fact is that across the state newspapers and other media take great pains to protect the identity of sexual assault victims day in and day out. Most, if not all, have strict policies against naming victims — unless the victim comes forth publicly.
The Legislature could have — and should have — adopted a policy of redacting names of sexual assault victims and legislators when complaints are made.
But identifying lawmakers when the results of investigations are complete and actions are taken — or no actions result — are an absolute responsibility of the Legislature and its leaders.
If Vos needs other reasons for the Legislature to be more transparent in reporting such abuses, we can give him 75,000 of them. That’s the number — in dollars — that state taxpayers paid out two years ago to a former lawmaker’s aide who complained of sexual harassment and discrimination by former state Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, and was later fired during an office downsizing.
That settlement only became public this week after an inquiry from The Wisconsin State Journal because although the initial complaint was filed with the Senate chief clerk, the agreement was reached after an investigation by the Department of Workforce Development.
According to accounts in the settlement, in one instance, Coggs asked the aide if she was “showing a little more cleavage lately” and said her breasts were a “distraction in the office.” In another instance, according to the Wisconsin State Journal report, Coggs asked the aide if she had “a taste for white meat” when she and a white co-worker both asked for the same day off.
When Coggs’ office was downsized after Republicans took control of the Legislature, the aide told Coggs how important her job was to her and he responded, “You can’t create an adversarial situation and then come back and ask me for something.”
Coggs, who has since left the Senate and is now Milwaukee city treasurer, told the Legislature’s Human Resources Office in 2009 — before the state agency investigation — that the aide should have kept her concerns “in-house.”
That screams for more public accountability when state lawmakers have committed improprieties or harassed legislative staff — or others. The names can be shielded at the outset, but the public has a right to know when the results of investigations are complete, what actions have been taken and any costs to Wisconsin taxpayers.
Openness, not secrecy, is the disinfectant that will cure bad behavior and encourage Capitol staffers to come forward with complaints when they are warranted.