Ethics Committee

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, right, addresses the House Ethics Committee on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, as the panel met as a "working group" to discuss the Legislature's "respectful workplace" policy, which was adopted by the Legislative Council in November of 2018.

After concern from some House members about the Legislature’s new “respectful workplace” policy and how it came about, the House Ethics Committee is meeting today as a “working group” to hear presentations and ask questions about it. “There was some angst,” said House Ethics Chairman Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay. “So what we’re doing is we’re taking a look at that. We’re seeking information.” The panel will “make a recommendation to the speaker and to our body in general as to how the House should be interacting with this respectful workplace policy.” Dixon said the panel won’t be recommending changes to the policy, but wants to “educate our members more about what this.”

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, who co-chaired the panel that worked to develop the policy, told the representatives that at the height of the “me-too” movement, as all the news was breaking, she was attending a Council of State Governments-West conference in Colorado Springs, and met with a group of lawmakers from other states each evening and discussed the issue. “Quite frankly, I was horrified by some of the stories,” Troy said. “Oregon had a senator who behaved so badly they took the door off of his office. … Both he and the person he was harassing were on the ethics committee. And they had no way to investigate the issue, because they didn’t have a policy in place. Colorado found themselves in a similar place, as did California. I believe that some of those harassment issues were egregious and maybe even included rape.”

After “a lot of philosophical conversations” at the convention, Troy said, “I came back and learned to my horror that Idaho was not immune to these issues.”

She said she heard from a state agency employee who was meeting with a legislator when the table was wobbling, and she got down under the table to try to fix the table leg. “The legislator said, ‘I knew you liked it on your knees.’ No one corrected him.”

In another incident, she said, “a fellow legislator recently shared with me that she was groped again by a member of this body, but she was afraid to come forward. … Women are afraid to say anything. We don’t want to rock the boat, and we don’t want to jeopardize our ability to succeed.”

Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, who co-chaired the effort with Troy, said the issue went beyond harassment, in an effort to make Idaho a leader in creating a truly respectful environment for everyone who interacts in the Statehouse. “Yes, it was adopted,” she said. If there are questions from the House about it, she said, they should be asked and they should be answered. The same goes for the Senate, Buckner-Webb said.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked a series of specific questions about how the process would work if someone filed a complaint under the policy. “Is there a definition of what offensive is?” he asked, asking if lawmakers forwarding emails about abortion issues, for example, would run afoul of the policy. Buckner-Webb said, “We know that the definition of anything is often defined by the receiver,” who may see it differently from how the sender intended it.

Officials from the Attorney General’s office and the state Division of Human Resources then answered specific questions from lawmakers about the policy, complaint procedures, and the details of how the process would work. Deputy Attorney General Colleen Zahn said there are several factors at play legally in the definition of what's offensive, including whether the recipient was offended, a subjective question; and whether a "reasonable person" in that recipient's shoes would have been offended, an objective question.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, asked Zahn a series of detailed legal questions, including about why the state has liability in these matters. Reps. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, and John McCrostie, D-Garden City, pointed out that the policy doesn’t specifically protect against harassment based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, noted that conflicts between House members or between Senate members could be matters for each body’s Ethics Committee, aside from the respectful workplace policy. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, an attorney, noted that if a lawmaker groped another lawmaker, that likely would meet the definition of a misdemeanor battery and possibly a misdemeanor assault, and it could be reported and prosecuted.

Numerous versions of the respectful workplace policy were developed as part of the process before the policy was adopted by the Legislative Council last November, Troy said, and those consulted ranged from lawmakers, Statehouse staffers, lobbyists and reporters to experts from the Attorney General’s office and DHR.

Said Troy, “Quite frankly, it’s time for some honest conversations about this.”

Zahn told the lawmakers, “While we’re focusing on sexual harassment, this policy covers all forms of prohibited harassment.” Fifty percent of the complaints handled by the Idaho Human Rights Commission regard disability discrimination, she noted.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate attended a mandatory two-hour ethics and respectful workplace seminar in January in the Lincoln Auditorium, at which Zahn and Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane were among the presenters.

The policy says that legislators, legislative employees and others in the Capitol “have the right to an environment that is free from harassment and discrimination,” and that the Legislature “expressly prohibits harassment, including sexual harassment, and discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.” It sets up a Respectful Workplace Committee that can handle complaints, in consultation with the Idaho Attorney General’s office; outlines procedures for investigations, including referrals to law enforcement for criminal investigations where appropriate; and lays out remedies the committee may assess, ranging from an apology to the complainant to counseling or training to triggering an ethics committee action. Legislative employees could face termination; reporters or lobbyists could face loss of access privileges in the Capitol.

The policy applies to events both inside and outside the Capitol, including off-site legislative events, lobbyist-sponsored receptions, and travel to and from official events. It includes definitions of verbal, non-verbal and physical harassment; forbids retaliation; and includes consequences for filing false complaints.

The policy also calls for mandatory respectful workplace training for all legislators, employees and others such as lobbyists and reporters, at least every two years.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

Load comments