N.H. House chief of staff releases more complaints of harassment in the State House

  • Few attended a legislative harassment seminar in the State House in February 2018. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 8/1/2018 11:29:43 PM

The New Hampshire House received seven complaints of harassment by members and staff working at the State House this year – six more than had been previously disclosed, the office said Wednesday.

Staff members have accused representatives of hostile work relationships and repeated intimidation tactics. Lawmakers have accused lobbyists – and other lawmakers – of aggressive comments and behavior. In one case, House and Senate chiefs of staff have stepped in to resolve inappropriate comments made between State House employees.

Under House rules, all complaints involving House members are made to Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff, who then is tasked with talking to witnesses and working with the relevant parties to find solutions. On Wednesday, responding to requests from the Monitor and other news outlets, Pfaff released a series of memos filed detailing those investigations, with names and identifying information redacted.

The complaints come during a year of increased awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and after a string of accusations of lawmaker misconduct in New Hampshire. Some complaints referred to long-established patterns that dated back months or a year. Others made accusations concerning one-time acts that left a mark. In revealing the records, Pfaff emphasized his office’s commitment to investigate all charges.

“This administration’s got zero tolerance for harassment of any sort in our building and our workplace,” he said. “So I want to encourage people to be able to report things if they see them.”

Responding to the records, Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which advocates for harassment and abuse victims, praised “those who bring this issue to light by reporting unacceptable behavior.”

But, she added: “We urge Leadership to continue to work to ensure that victims of harassment feel encouraged to come forward, that those who witness harassment intervene, and that there is accountability for those who create an unsafe work environment in the State House.”

A pattern of hostility

On April 26, a staff member was on the receiving end of a targeted comment by a representative, part of what she said was a “pattern of behavior which has led to a hostile work environment.” According to an attached – and redacted – memo submitted to Pfaff by that staff person, the representative had consistently made derogatory comments against her, calling her “the old bat” and the “granny in the corner.” The comments, made both when she was in the room and when she was not, had “been ongoing for more than a year.”

The comments had been made in front of other staff members and in front of guests, the staffer reported. In a separate memo, other staffers interviewed confirmed the comments, adding that the representative had called the complainant the “old ogre.”

“His statements about me have been pervasive enough to create a work environment that is meant to be intimidating and abusive,” the complainant wrote to Pfaff.

On April 26 – another voting day in the House – the member entered the office and addressed his comment to another representative in the room. “If you want to have a fun day, just walk into the room and tell (redacted) ‘I’m male – and I suck.’ Because she hates all men.”

The staffer didn’t appreciate it, walking over to the representative and asking him “What?”

“I’m just messing with you,” he replied to her.

“Yes, you are,” she said and left the room, according to the memo.

Citing the year’s worth of behavior, she filed the complaint.

“If this continues,” she added at the end of her submission, “my next step will be to seek legal counsel.”

When Pfaff sat down with the accused representatives, he brought along Jim Cianci, the House Legal Counsel. He presented the staffer’s complaints, said there were witnesses in the room that had confirmed the account, and mentioned the accusations of a pattern of behavior.

The representative did not deny making the comment, Pfaff wrote in a May 1 memo. But he gave a wholly different interpretation of the hostile relationship, calling it “good-natured” teasing. “Rep (redacted) wanted it known that their banter had gone on for a long time, good-natured, like a brother and sister,” Pfaff wrote. “On the day in question, he admitted to being ‘pissed’ with her because he felt (redacted) intervened on a piece of legislation. He also said he had taken allergy drugs which could have contributed to his behavior that day.”

According to the memos, Pfaff asked the staffer making the complaint if she wanted to take the matter to the Legislative Ethics Committee, a closed-door process that can lead to further disciplinary action. She said she wanted to wait out the results of the investigation. In the end, the representative promised the behavior would stop and that “there would be no retribution” against the staffer for making the complaint.

The representative also agreed to “consider” a recommendation that he attend a harassment awareness training session through the state’s Employee Assistance Program, normally intended for employees. It is unknown whether that session was attended.

In one instance, a senator and a representative who had clashed during Senate hearings each filed complaints about the other. The senator, a female committee chairwoman, said she was “sick of” the male representative’s “comments at her hearing and outside her hearings.” The atmosphere had apparently turned to the point that the senator had a Protective Services officer nearby the committee rooms to keep order, according to a memo by Pfaff. The senator asked that Pfaff instruct the representative to stay away from her and the hearings.

In a separate conversation with Pfaff, the male representative “appeared to have difficulty focusing on the comment at hand,” instead saying that he didn’t feel respected by legislative leadership. The representative agreed to stay away from the senator’s office and to not approach her personally; the senator agreed to allow the representative to continue to testify unless he became disruptive.

Outside involvement

In one case, the Department of Justice stepped in.

In April, two legislative staffers complained about a state representative they said had engaged in a pattern of harassment against them. The representative, identified as male, had been intermittently bothering the staffers as they left the State House to go to their cars, honking his horn as they walked past. The pattern continued, and the staffers decided to stop acknowledging him, they told Pfaff.

Later, according to the staffer, the representative complained about being ignored. “What’s up with (redacted)? He snubbed me,” he said to Pfaff. Reacting to a suggestion that the lawmaker leave the staffer alone, the lawmaker made “off-color comments” about the pair and added “I thought you two had a thing together.”

The alleged harassment only escalated. One staffer later said that he was taking alternate routes to his car to avoid being confronted. Another told Pfaff that “there have been numerous incidents and sufficient responses made to (the representative) that neither of them is interested in interacting with him.

The office supervisor said “he felt compelled to report this unwanted behavior, as it has been repetitive and distressful for both.”

Pfaff agreed it warranted the involvement of the Department of Justice.

After a review, Richard Tracy, the chief criminal investigator at the department, got in touch with the representative, according to a memo dated Aug. 1 said. Tracy informed the lawmaker “that he was not to have any further conduct” with either of the representatives, unless for official business. The representative agreed.

Conflicting accounts

Most of the complaints involved verbal behavior. But one of them was physical. On April 25, a female representative said she had been the target of sexually suggestive behavior on the House floor, weeks earlier. A male representative in her seat row had been getting up to leave the hall and the woman, who was in pain, did not stand to let him by. The representative then faced her and “wiggled his pelvis” in her direction, standing in close proximity, she told Pfaff. Despite not wanting to report the incident at the time, she was encouraged to by her neighbor to the left, who had witnessed the interaction.

The representative denied the charge, though did admit to leaving the hall frequently on voting days. Facing conflicting accounts, Pfaff asked the representative to refrain from similar behavior in the future, a solution both members agreed to.

Mutual agreement

Some of the complaints were found by Pfaff not to rise to the level of harassment, yet in many cases, a resolution was still reached.

A January complaint involved a lobbyist who had approached a representative numerous times in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. She said he had talked with her about a piece of legislation that she was co-sponsoring and that he had told her he was hired to kill the bill. He later denied it, calling her a liar and making accusations against her, she reported. She requested that the lobbyist keep a distance from her and he agreed to the request, though he later disputed her account, according to the memos.

In a different incident, in February, a female representative complained about an interaction in the Representatives Hall anteroom on Feb. 8, a voting day. On that day, when two highly contested bills were voted through – House Bill 628, creating a paid family medical leave program; and House Bill 587, banning the practice of conversion therapy – a male representative approached her with a sharp comment: “Enjoy your last term because your constituents are going to find out how you voted.”

Approached later, the male representative said he had not meant the comment as a threat, and a third-party witness said that she had retorted with a second comment: “Enjoy yours too.” Pfaff concluded that the exchange was an argument but not harassment.

Increasing awareness

Back in November, the New Hampshire House had a spotty record for sexual harassment awareness. A year into the legislative biennium, 119 of the body’s 400 members had failed to sign a form acknowledging they had even read the chamber’s harassment policy, despite each receiving a copy at the start of the session.

But after a series of high-profile celebrities and politicians have resigned their positions following detailed reports of harassment and misconduct, some think Granite State legislators may be opening their eyes.

In the New Hampshire House, 2018 saw more harassment complaints than any year since 2015, when the leadership office began formally keeping track. To Pfaff, that may be a sign that the system is beginning to work.

“I think people are more aware so hopefully they’re more comfortable to register an allegation or a complaint if they feel they’ve been aggrieved or a breach of a policy has occurred,” Pfaff said. He encouraged more to come forward, adding that even if the complaints weren’t held up as harassment or sent to the Ethics Committee or attorney general’s office, the process often can act as a means to deter the behavior from continuing further.

Speaking Wednesday, Sexton praised that sentiment.

“That is exactly what we hope they will continue to do,” she said. “In order to resolve the issue of harassment at the State House, we need to be creating an environment where people are willing to shine a light on it, so we can understand the extent of the problem, and we need to have leadership that is willing to address the issues and hold people accountable.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)



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