As sexual harassment in state legislatures has received national attention over the last several months, a Montana legislative committee examining the issue appears split on whether more needs to be done here to combat harassment.
At a preliminary meeting of the Legislative Council to review the issue in mid-December, lawmakers discussed the reporting process for harassment claims. While they said there have been less than a handful of complaints in the last decade, they were divided over whether that accurately reflected the problem.
“My sense is that people at various times have felt uncomfortable,” House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, a Democrat from Helena, said last week. “But I have not been (made aware of) formal complaints, and I have not had a woman ask me to formally pursue something.”
Eck has served three terms in the Legislature, starting in 2013. She was a whip in 2015 and elected House minority leader in 2017.
She said Friday said she’s experienced “moments where I’ve felt uncomfortable. I know there are others that have as well, but that’s part of working as a woman in this world.”
While Eck said she wants the Legislative Council to explore several possible changes — including examining the way harassment claims are reported, using a third party to investigate claims and making sexual harassment training mandatory — not all on the Legislative Council agreed. The council is a bipartisan administrative committee that oversees the Legislative Services Division.
Senate President Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican and member of the council, said during his seven terms in the Legislature, including three in leadership, he only had a single complaint of sexual harassment brought to him, and that was in 2007 when he was Speaker of the House.
Sales told the Legislative Council he was resistant to adding more rules or laws without more evidence, in the way of formal complaints, that the Legislature has a problem.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Sales said during the December meeting. "We have a great track record if we don’t have any official complaints.''
He said the heightened attention to sexual harassment nationally means legislators here would be "tone deaf'' if they missed the message that harassment isn't acceptable.
"I just think this is going to solve itself,'' he told fellow council members. "I don’t want to prematurely jump on something (when) I don’t believe we have an issue.”
On Friday, Sales expanded on his concerns.
“I think we already have too many laws on the books,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of state laws that address damn near every function and little tidbit of our lives. The last thing I want to do is pass another law unless we absolutely need it.”
Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division since 2006, said she’s only had one informal complaint and no formal complaints of sexual harassment brought to her. The informal complaint was handled by discussing the matter with the parties involved.
How the Legislature deals with official sexual harassment is spelled out in a joint rule, adopted in 1993 and last updated in 2005, Fox said.
Under the rule, lawmakers report claims of harassment to their party leader if the person who harassed them is a fellow senator or representative. The report would go the presiding officer if the alleged harasser was the party leader. The matter could then be formally referred to the Rules Committee, and the offender would be subject to discipline or censure if deemed appropriate.
Reporting for legislative staff members would generally be done through the Legislative Services Division.
Eck said she was concerned that the reporting process does not make clear how lobbyists, members of the public, members of the media or other people who spend time in the Capitol during the session would deal with complaints of sexual harassment against legislators.
“It is more complicated in the Capitol than it might be in a regular employment setting because you do have all these groups,” Eck said. “There’s not a clear hierarchy like it would be if you are in a company. What I find more complicated about the Capitol is you have all these groups interfacing.”
One of the documented complaints of sexual harassment in a past legislative session involved a member of the media who brought her concerns to the Speaker of the House.
During a 2002 special session, a female news reporter made a complaint to then-House Majority Leader Roy Brown, of Billings.
Brown sent out a memo saying the reporter complained "one or some members" of the Legislature had been "too flirty" or "too clingy" or had asked reporters to "go out," according to a story that ran in the Great Falls Tribune on Aug. 27, 2002.
In the memo, Brown also wrote the Legislature as a whole should not be "painted with this brush," adding that "the vast majority of all legislators are upright and outstanding individuals, whose main purpose is to serve their constituents."
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Sales said he felt that process was generally sufficient, though he did have concerns in cases where the person who claims harassment is a staff member.
“If you have a position of authority over somebody, I can see why they might be reluctant to bring forth a charge,'' he said.
Eck said the issue of power and authority could play a role even when the person bringing the claim of assault is a lawmaker.
“If it’s all being dealt with within leadership, within the caucus, you could see all the potential issues that come out of that. Sexual harassment is about power and when you’re working in the Legislature there’s a lot of power dynamics going on,” Eck said.
Sales said he believes there are adequate avenues to pursue if individuals have had their rights violated.
“In my mind, and I might be wrong, I think we have what we need in place,” Sales said. “We just need people to say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to participate in that type of behavior and I’m not going to be the recipient of that type of behavior.’
“I guess where I’m coming from is I’ve seen so little of this and heard so little of it, I don’t think we need additional safeguards at this point or additional training or additional laws or law enforcement involved in it. If we have a larger problem than I know, it needs to be brought to my attention. I’m not likely to try to fix a problem I don’t know exists.”
Sales said it's incumbent upon those who are sexually harassed to report it.
“Shame on them,” he said. “It’s their responsibility, if they feel like they have their rights violated, that they … bring it to attention so the conduct can be stopped,'' Sales said. "I know from my own experience I wouldn’t hesitate to if someone had violated my rights.''
He said women in the Legislature can "handle themselves. They’re intelligent, they’re accomplished, they know and should know the law. They’re assertive. If they feel like they can’t come forward and bring to light conduct that's not appropriate then how can we ever address this problem on a larger scale?”
In light of the national conversation about harassment, Eck said it's valuable to take a deeper look at Montana and the status quo.
“Women often talk about this among ourselves or we have an awareness of it among ourselves,'' she said. "And maybe to some level we have accepted that this is how it is and we just tried to protect each other and protect ourselves and have lost faith in the system...
“I’m definitely determined to start thinking about it more intentionally, to start talking about it more intentionally and within the Legislature to come up with a formal process to make sure everyone understands what their rights are,'' Eck said. "It protects all of us. I don’t see a downside to that.”
Sales said it's the responsibility of lawmakers to avoid creating an opportunity for claims of harassment. He said when he meets with a woman, he leaves the door open or will have another person in the room.
“We have to protect (ourselves,) our reputations and the office that we hold,'' he said. "I think it’s incumbent upon us all, especially the males who are typically the ones accused of this type of behavior… to guard yourself and guard your reputation.”
The Legislative Council directed Fox to examine how other state legislatures handle sexual harassment. She also will look at Montana's joint rule and options for broadening the process to include all the types of people who are in the Capitol during the session.
The next Legislative Council meeting is in mid-March, and Fox said that’s when she’ll bring more information to give to legislators on the committee. That should be enough time to start planning orientation and training to have something in place for the November caucuses.
She said the roughly 130 full-time legislative staff members — about 100 more come on during the session — will have two training sessions in January and February. It will be mandatory for all permanent staff.
“I thought we would try that out and see what that was like and see if that’s something that could be expanded or fine-tuned for legislators,” Fox told the council.
Eck said she'd like to explore making training mandatory and raised the question of having a third-party investigator, who is neutral and not involved in the Legislature.
But before any changes are made, Sales said he first wants to make sure there's a problem to be fixed.
“I’m not making light of it, but before I want to make it more cumbersome for people to do their jobs and communicate with one another and to interact with one another, I want to make sure we do have a problem before I try to fix a problem I don’t know we have,'' he said.
“If it does happen, we owe it to our constituents and to the people that work for us at the Capitol'' not to condone it, he added. "And there will be consequences if that type of behavior is legitimate and verified.”