Six N.H. lawmakers accused of harassment since 2015 – one of the highest tallies in the U.S.

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

Associated Press
Thursday, April 12, 2018

A New Hampshire state representative who complained that a male colleague sent him dozens of messages seeking a personal relationship was told no action would be taken unless he expressly stated he was not interested, according to a review of recent sexual harassment and misconduct allegations at the State House.

The complaint, in March 2016, was among about 70 that were identified nationwide when the Associated Press filed records requests in every state seeking information on complaints made against lawmakers since 2008. The New Hampshire House provided information about eight complaints involving six members, but it had records dating back only to 2015, and there is no requirement that records be kept. The Senate said it had no records of such complaints.

Even with its narrow window of records, New Hampshire ranks among the highest in the country for the number of sexual misconduct complaints filed against lawmakers, according to an Associated Press data analysis.

In most of the cases involving New Hampshire lawmakers, men who were accused of inappropriate behavior – touching a female lawmaker’s knee, telling a joke about a brothel, greeting a staffer with “Be still my heart!” – were spoken to by the House chief of staff and the matters were dropped after the lawmakers agreed to stop the behavior. But in two cases, the accused lawmakers weren’t notified of the complaints.

In the case involving the two male lawmakers, a young state representative said he felt uncomfortable about dozens of Facebook messages he had received from an older colleague in the span of about a month. The older lawmaker said he had “mentored many young guys” at the State House and repeatedly asked the younger lawmaker to call him or meet with him. After getting no response, he wrote, “I guess you don’t need me at all. You didn’t respond to anything I wrote last night. To me that is rude. I thought you appreciated my friendship and offer. I hope you will make time to come and see me.”

In a memo, House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff said he reviewed the messages and noted that the younger lawmaker had not explicitly told his colleague to stop contacting him.

“I advised that if (the lawmaker) does contact him again, he needs to tell him he is not interested in any further communication. If that is unsuccessful, we would take the necessary next steps to resolve the situation,” wrote Pfaff, who did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.

In another case, a lawmaker was accused in 2015 of calling the then-mayor of Nashua a vulgar name at a legislative luncheon. He also was accused of making lewd comments to female lobbyists, invading their personal space and asking them on dates. The women said the behavior made them reluctant to appear before the committee on which he sat, but nothing in the file indicates House officials ever confronted him with the allegations.

A ninth complaint came in December, after the AP’s records request, and involved a female staffer who said a lawmaker had greeted her with a “friendly hug,” as he had done in the past.

“However, she now feels even a friendly hug is inappropriate in the workplace in light of the heightened awareness and recent national focus on sexual harassment,” Pfaff wrote. He spoke to the lawmaker, who said he understood the need for more sensitivity and would refrain from hugging her again.

Behind the policy

Granite State legislators have largely ignored the state’s anti-harassment policies by failing to sign forms and attend voluntary training.

At the end of last year, about a quarter of the 400 members of the House had not signed a form acknowledging they had even read the chamber’s sexual harassment policy.

After legislators received the policy by email, several wrote back imploring other legislators not to sign. Two lawmakers – Republican Reps. Al Baldasaro and John Burt – described the policy as “Political Correctness gone wrong” and a “backdoor way to stifle debate and silence legislators.”

The policy itself appeared fairly straightforward.

“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,” read the policy – an eight-page document that was 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.”

In January 2018, a training session to educate legislators on State House anti-harassment policies drew sparse attendance, when fewer than 40 of the 400 House representatives showed up.

Legislators who did not attend said that they were deterred by the early hour of the event – held at 8:30 a.m. – and the day’s heavy workload.

Organizers said it was the first time since the recession era that a similar event had been held. It was the first one to happen in the so-called “#MeToo” era – which has brought heightened attention on the issue of workplace harassment across the country.

By the numbers

New Hampshire, which has the largest legislature in the country, tied for the second-most sexual misconduct complaints against legislators among all states. But it fares better when looking at the ratio of complaints to legislators

With complaints against six legislators and 424 total lawmakers in the House and Senate, the Granite State saw 1.4 complaints per 100 legislators, which puts New Hampshire in the top third of states with the highest ratio of complaints. By contrast, Wyoming, which tied New Hampshire with six total complaints in the past decade, has just 90 legislators. As a result, it has a rate of 6.7 complaints per 100 legislators – second only to California and five times higher than New Hampshire.

(The ‘Behind the policy’ and ‘By the numbers’ sections of this story were written by Monitor staff.)