Others’ opinion: Minn. House’s new sex harassment policy put to quick test

Published 6:44 am Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

With surprising immediacy, the Minnesota House’s new sexual harassment policy is being tested. The revelation Thursday that a Bemidji activist has filed a sexual assault complaint against state Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, triggered an investigative protocol that the House Rules Committee had revised only the day before.

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Emily Schlecht, 23, an advocate for a sexual violence center in Bemidji, filed a police report last week accusing Hamilton, 50, of unwanted kisses and touches when she was an overnight guest in Hamilton’s St. Paul apartment on April 13, during a snowstorm. No criminal charges have been filed. The matter remains under investigation, though a St. Paul police spokesman said that as of now, “we do not feel that there is enough for a criminal case.”

Hamilton issued a statement saying “I categorically deny accusations of sexual assault” and apologizing to Schlecht for actions that, “while well-intentioned, may be viewed differently by a survivor of sexual assault, and that may have caused additional pain and hardship.” He reported the matter himself to the House’s human resources office, a nonpartisan department charged by the new policy with receiving and investigating such complaints, hiring outside investigative help at its discretion, and reporting findings to the leaders of both parties’ caucuses.

House Republican leaders responded swiftly, announcing that Hamilton’s chairmanship of the House Agriculture Finance Committee is suspended and that the new policy would govern next steps. That policy does not spell out possible disciplinary actions, which remain at the discretion of caucus leaders and/or the full House.

It’s too soon to say what should come next for Hamilton, a seven-term legislator and pork producer who won re-election in 2016 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. The House’s investigation should play out.

But this episode and the resignations late last year of two legislators who had been accused of unwanted advances say much about a change in workplace cultures, as evidenced in what may be this state’s most public workplace, the State Capitol.

There was a time not long ago when lobbyists and staffers would be counseled to keep quiet when they felt mistreated by legislators, especially those in positions of power whose favor they needed to curry in order to do their jobs. What’s more, someone who wanted to complain likely would not know to whom to turn or what would ensue if he or she did.

That’s changing, and for the better. The public nature of Schlecht’s complaint and the orderly way in which it is being handled should assure future complainants that they need not endure in silence. That assurance will be greater still if the results and consequences of the Hamilton investigation are made public. That’s not required by the new policy, which seeks to “respect the privacy as much as possible of all parties.” In this case, we would argue, fairness to all parties trumps privacy, and demands transparency.