New transcripts in Sanborn investigation allege history of harassment

Monitor staff
Published: 8/25/2018 11:37:55 PM

It has become a recurring torment for the Andy Sanborn campaign: the Friday evening release of interview transcripts from the attorney general.

Earlier this year Sanborn, a state senator and Republican candidate for the 1st Congressional District, was tangentially tied up in an investigation into whether Senate leadership attempted to cover up “crass” comments he made to an intern in 2013. That investigation revealed no wrongdoing on the part of top officials. But the probe, which involved 18 witnesses, did capture a series of accusations from Sanborn’s tenure in the Senate.

Throughout the gradual release of the transcripts – over 600 pages so far – Sanborn has consistently denied wrongdoing and accused the Republican establishment of ginning up charges to take down his campaign.

Below is a review of the accusations and how Sanborn’s responses have evolved.

The accusations

At this point, three separate incidents of alleged harassment have emerged from the transcripts, each with varying levels of corroboration.

1) The intern comment. Sometime in February 2013, just ahead of the Senate weeklong break, Sanborn was speaking to an intern from the University of New Hampshire about his vacation plans. His wife, Rep. Laurie Sanborn, couldn’t join him; the House was not taking a corresponding break that year. The intern joked that he could take her place. Sanborn gave a sexually explicit reply, asking the intern if he gives good oral sex. According to multiple witness testimonies, comments were overheard by a legislative aide and the senate legal counsel, Rick Lehmann, who reported it to the chief of staff and initiated an investigation. All involved described the behavior as a joke, Lehmann testified, and no formal complaint was filed. But subsequent testimony from aides suggested the intern was uncomfortable.

Rumors that the incident had led to a job for an intern and a gift of petty cash to buy his silence prompted the attorney general’s review. The department of justice later found that no credible evidence existed of a bribe.

2) The pattern of harassment. Prominent within the most recent batch of transcripts was the testimony of a female legislative aide – her name redacted – who said she was subjected to “almost daily” comments from Sanborn on the way she dressed and looked, and that she had felt uncomfortable and changed her attire in response. The aide was later encouraged to speak up about it by then-Sen. Jeanne Forrester. Through that process, and conversations with the Senate chief of staff, the aide was eventually transferred out of Sanborn’s office, serving Forrester instead.

Forrester, the aide in question, and multiple other staffers reported hearing about the behavior at the time.

3) The sexual comment. Tucked within the recently
released testimony of Angela Leach, the present director of Senate committee services and former assistant chief of staff, is a third example. Sometime around the comment to the intern in 2013 and the pattern of harassment with the staffer, Sanborn made another comment to a male staffer about a female staffer, Leach said. As that female aide left the room – the same aide who accused Sanborn of commenting on her physical appearance – Sanborn turned to the male aide and commented on her attractiveness. He suggested that the male aide probably wanted to have sex with the female aide, Leach recalled hearing.

Reports of the incident were also heard by Senate Chief of Staff Kristy Merrill, she testified. But neither Merrill nor Leach received the complaint first-hand. Leach said she was told by Jay Flanders, then the Senate Chief of Staff.

When interviewed, Flanders was vague.

“I have a recollection, but it’s not clear, that he made a comment to another staffer at one point that was inappropriate,” he said, “but the details are fuzzy.”

Sanborn’s statements

At nearly every turn in the investigation, Sanborn has been quick to publicly respond. As a candidate for Congress, to do otherwise is not an option.

But the substance of his responses has changed somewhat with each new piece of information.

In December, responding to media inquiries surrounding records of a 2013 harassment incident involving a state senator, Sanborn said that he “used crass language in response to an absurd statement made by someone in my office, with my wife present.” He relayed the details – the investigation by legal counsel and the lack of a complaint – all of which has been backed up in later transcripts.

“At a time when women across this land are being harassed and disrespected, it is disgusting that anyone is trying to equate a crass joke to all the real challenges women are facing today,” he said, making reference to the burgeoning #MeToo movement.

Then, in June, the attorney general released a letter finding that there was no substantiation to rumors that Senate leadership had paid off the intern allegedly harassed by Sanborn. The letter did not weigh on the validity of the comments themselves. But as far as Sanborn was concerned, the case was closed.

“As expected the AG’s office did a thorough job of fully investigating it and found that no one did anything wrong,” he said.

But reporters continued to press for details. In July, the first batch of redacted transcripts from interviews conducted for the attorney general investigation were released, including Flanders’s reference to another pattern of alleged behavior against a female aide that prompted her to move her desk away.

Asked by WMUR if he recalled the incident and its outcome, Sanborn said no.

“No, and I have no control over that. You have to remember that all staff works at the discretion of the Senate president.”

Within a day, he had sharpened his response.

“This story is total BS that has no merit whatsoever,” he said. “It’s fake news being generated by the establishment’s party bosses and their cronies. It’s a witch-hunt, plain and simple, as is all too common in today’s world.” Separately, he took aim at Flander’s “fuzzy ” memory, declaring his “clear.”

Then the next shoe dropped. On Aug. 17, a new batch of transcripts included 71 pages of the female aide’s testimony, in which she detailed in her own words experiences feeling uncomfortable at Sanborn’s comments, and said that Sen. Forrester had facilitated her move out of the office. Suddenly, Flanders’s recollections had a lot more weight.

In a statement last week, Sanborn did not directly say whether the former aide’s comments were valid, but he also didn’t call them “total BS.” Instead, he called her “a staffer and friend of Laurie and I for several years,” and called the allegations in the transcripts “phantom assertions,” rumors and innuendo drummed up “to settle political scores.”

Still, he seemed to tacitly admit the existence of the compliments.

“Have we come to a point where complimenting a colleague for dressing well has become news?” he said.

On Friday, a spokesman for Sanborn declined to comment beyond the statement.

The testimony

Responding to the latest developments – and many of the previous ones – Sanborn has hit on a common refrain: The focus on the allegations detracts from issues of greater substance.

“Quite frankly, it’s disrespectful to those who have had real issues in the workplace,” he said last week.

But throughout her testimony, the female aide outlined feelings that do appear to constitute “real issues.” Almost every day, she said, he would compliment her outfit, going as far as to call her “hot.” She said the comments crossed a line – a sexual line – that gave her the “creeps,” and made her uncomfortable.

“I was getting a distinct vibe,” she said. “... If it was anybody else or a weaker person, they probably wouldn’t have been able to have worked for him.”

Other aides’ transcripts added further detail. Shannon Girard, presently the executive secretary to the Senate President, said that the female aide had visited her crying, saying “I feel like I should say something.”

And some of the staffers recounted general unease with Sanborn’s behavior. The unnamed female aide said she had been warned ahead of time not to be in a room with Sanborn alone. Others said they avoided him. “He’s just not, in my opinion, not a nice person,” Forrester said.

“I just don’t think people want to necessarily deal with him,” Girard said. “I mean, he – regardless of even like the sexual harassment stuff, he’s just sort of a difficult person to work for. ... He’s like, you know, aggressive or something or angry or anything like that.”

“In my opinion, I feel he does not have boundaries,” said Ann Knapp, a staffer in the Senate Clerk’s office. “He will say whatever he wants to anybody he wants.”

The caveats

But while parts of the interviews didn’t pull punches, the portrait they presented carries caveats. To start, no one interviewed beyond the unnamed female aides said they had experienced any sexually inappropriate comments themselves. Many said he had a reputation, but few would name specific cases.

“Never witnessed anything directly, that I can recall,” Forrester said.

“I have never had a situation with him before,” Girard said.

Sonja Caldwell, a senior aide, said the same.

So did Merrill, who said, “I’ve had difficult conversations with Senator Sanborn (to do with work approaches) but nothing along those lines.”

Even the female aide added qualifiers. Her tenure with Sanborn wasn’t always pleasant, she said, but she still appreciated his other qualities.

“I always thought that Senator Sanborn was a – a decent person,” she said. “I looked up to him as a senator for what he did, obviously thinking that I may want to do politics, and I kind of – you know, I worked for the guy. I wanted to learn from him. I never thought that he was – other than kind of a dirty creep, like I said – I never felt like he was gonna hurt me, or do anything to me.”

In the end, for Sanborn, the picture is complicated. But with a primary opponent – Eddie Edwards – already raising the issue of Sanborn’s fitness for office, the accusations levied in the attorney general’s transcripts aren’t easily fading in the distance.

For now, voters must parse the details for themselves – the damning descriptions and calming qualifiers.

Until the next batch of documents drops.

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