Capital Beat: A quarter of the House has not signed onto harassment policy

Monitor staff
Monday, November 20, 2017

As guidelines go, the anti-harassment policy in the New Hampshire State House is clear-cut.

“The General Court will not tolerate harassment or discrimination against an employee or member on the basis of sex or any of the other eleven characteristics referenced above,” reads the policy – an eight-page document most recently updated in 2016.

Among the characteristics: age, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation and sex. Among the categories of harassment: unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors and physical or verbal contact that “creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

But the extent to which legislators agree to or acknowledge those guidelines is far from clear. Since the start of the new session, 119 of the 400 members of the New Hampshire House have yet to sign acknowledging they have read the form, according to a review of records.

That’s despite each House member receiving a hard copy in his or her mailbox at the start of the session in January, and despite three emails sent this year alone by House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff.

Pfaff’s latest email, sent out Nov. 1, came in the wake of a cascade of high-profile reports on sexual harassment and assault, after dozens of women alleged abuse at the hands of studio executive Harvey Weinstein and further accusations were leveled against politicians and celebrities.

Some may write off the groundswell as a far-away spectacle. But the New Hampshire House is hardly exempt from introspection.

Since January 2015, 10 harassment complaints have been brought to the attention of Pfaff and his office, according to records provided by the House Legal Counsel, James Cianci.

Some concern unwanted gestures. In November 2015, a female House employee reported the placement of an offensive cartoon by a male supervisor; this November, a female employee complained of a male representative sending her harassing requests over the website LinkedIn – four months after that same employee made a complaint of an “off-color joke” told in her office by a male representative that made her uncomfortable.

In April 2015, a complaint was submitted alleging that a male representative had invaded the personal space of female lobbyists, “asked for dates, and made comments on Facebook.” In April 2016, a senator reported a rumor of sexual harassment by a male joint staff member.

One complaint, in Feburary 2015, alleges inappropriate contact on the House floor. The Sergeant-at-Arms reported “a male state representative touching (a) female state representative on the knee” during a House session, according to reports.

Beyond basic descriptions, Cianci has declined to make further information available in the face of right-to-know requests, citing an exemption under RSA 91-A for employee confidentiality.

Meanwhile, some representatives have drawn their own unsavory headlines: Robert Fisher of Laconia, who resigned under pressure after the discovery of his involvement with a misogynistic forum, or Eric Schleien, R-Hudson, who was charged this year with sexually assaulting a minor.

According to existing harassment policy, employees or members experiencing harassment may report it orally or in writing directly to the Chief of Staff. Or they can use an alternative process and file the complaint before the Legislative Ethics Committee, under RSA 14-B.

Through the years, the policy has been updated and re-released to members. House and Senate representatives are also meant to undergo sexual harassment prevention training during the opening days of their orientation. Yet that training hasn’t taken place in recent years’ orientation, according to Pfaff.

And, still, over a quarter of House members have failed to signoff on the policy.

Determining why isn’t straightforward. Many may have forgotten. But some members, bristling at what they see as an unlawful infringement on their right to free speech, have refused. They argue that as representatives, not state employees, they’re accountable to their constituents, not the body’s Chief of Staff.

In an email sent to Pfaff’s office this month and reviewed by the Monitor, Rep Dan Hynes, R-Merrimack, put that argument in writing.

“Unless I am forced to acknowledge based on a house rule or law I do not accept, agree with or acknowledge this policy,” he wrote. “I further invoke all 1st amendment and constitutional protections which this policy may be violating.”

Other members of the House have expressed similar objections, Pfaffe said, despite the fact that the form merely asks for acknowledgement of the policies, not agreement. But, he added he’s not sure whether that explains the bulk of non-responses.

“Maybe it’s an oversight, maybe they just didn’t remember,” he said.

Either way, to Pfaff, the absent replies are troubling.

“In my mind, I don’t like it being that high,” he said. “I would prefer them to acknowledge the policy.”

Pfaff is looking into practices in other states to try to find examples to follow. One possible model: Vermont, whose statehouse makes public all records of official complaints in a report every year.

And he says the office is pushing for bigger changes: A provision recently cleared the House Rules Committee that would establish a “standing member conduct subcommittee” comprised of legislators, which would act as an intermediary review mechanism for complaints.

But addressing the acknowledgment forms for the House’s existing harassment policy, Pfaff throws up his hands.

“I can’t force these guys to do anything,” he said.