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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 26, 2018 1:00 am

Indiana passed modest changes

Lawmakers set to take training on sexual conduct

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Dozens of state lawmakers nationwide have resigned or been disciplined amid the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment – but not in Indiana.

The Hoosier State has remained relatively unscathed as legislative leaders this year passed modest changes to state policies.

State representatives and senators for the first time must now take at least an hour of anti-harassment training each year. And a summer study committee is conducting a review and will make formal recommendations to the General Assembly regarding an updated sexual harassment/reporting policy for 2019.

“So far it hasn't hit us like it has other areas. Maybe it's because we're Hoosiers and we're better people,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “For whatever reason we haven't had that kind of scandal here. But we still need a policy.”

He said the goal is to have the policy that governs lawmakers directly in place by Organization Day in November. The process has been complicated because elected officials can't be treated the same as employees.

“The policy is a little more complicated in this environment. You can't just fire someone like in a corporate setting,” Long said. “I can't fire a senator.”

Andrew Downs, head of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue Fort Wayne, said there has been little action on the policy side because that's typical for the state.

“It takes us longer to address matters related to elected officials,” he said. “We expect voters to be the ones to handle the violations. If we don't like what you have done, we vote you out of office. It is the Hoosier way.”

House Majority Floor Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said the legislature is working to hold lawmakers to a “high moral and ethical standard. I want Hoosiers to know we are committed to holding our members accountable.”

When Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the legislative changes into law he also announced changes to sexual harassment training policies for the executive branch. The judicial branch did the same.

“In light of the many recent, high-profile sexual and workplace harassment cases, it makes sense for all branches of government to take a look at their own policies,” the governor said. “There's zero room for harassment of any kind in Indiana's state government workplaces, and I'm proud of the work we've accomplished to ensure that message is loud and clear in the legislative, executive and judicial branches.”

For instance, state agency heads must now complete annual training workshops focused on workplace harassment, conduct, and civility. And computer-based training for all state employees on harassment was updated and launched in May.

There is no easy way for Hoosiers to know if there have been harassment claims against lawmakers that were handled internally. Lehman said there hasn't been any discipline or attempts to hide anything from the public. 

And Long said the question of when an investigation becomes public is part of the internal discussion. For instance, should a third party be involved to say whether a complaint is valid or not?

“One of the challenges is how transparent should it be. We have to vet it properly because there is a vulnerability to an elected official,” he said. “They have to have confidence and trust in system to treat them fairly.”

But legislative involvement in the state's most recent high-profile case of harassment allegations would have remained secret if not for an unknown person who leaked a confidential memo in late June.

Attorney General Curtis Hill is accused of groping four women at a local bar during a post-session celebration in March. One of the women was a lawmaker and the others were legislative staffers working for both major political parties.

The legal memo that surfaced was to see what employment obligations the House and Senate had, if any, in the case. The attorney said it wasn't workplace harassment because Hill didn't work for the legislative branch and it didn't happen at work.

Other than speaking with Hill about his conduct, legislative leaders were set to take no action. 

That was until the story broke and eventually all top GOP elected officials called on Hill – also a Republican – to resign.

He has refused, and a state investigation is ongoing.

nkelly@jg.net