Iowans left in the dark on Senate GOP sexual harassment investigation

Iowa Senate Republican leaders have never acknowledged that Kirsten Anderson faced sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation while working for the Senate GOP caucus.

They have stuck to the unconvincing story that Anderson lost her job (hours after she had submitted a written complaint about a hostile work environment) solely because of her writing skills.

They didn’t allow an independent investigation of the allegations Anderson raised in a lawsuit, which a Polk County jury unanimously found credible.

They aren’t releasing any findings from an internal investigation of those allegations.

They have ensured that the legislature’s new human resources director will report to Republican political appointees.

Yet they want us to take their word for it that harassment at the statehouse will not be tolerated.

Barbara Rodriguez was first to report that Iowa House and Senate leaders “plan to hire a director of human resources before the legislative session begins in January.” From her November 9 story for the Associated Press on November 9,

The new position will be a resource to lawmakers as well as nonpartisan and partisan staffs, according to a job description. The same description does not directly reference sexual harassment issues, though it notes the director will “train managers to supervise employees in compliance with state and federal laws and applicable policies and procedures, including anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and procedures.” […]

The hiring decision is being made within the chambers and does not involve an independent state agency. In August, Dix, a Shell Rock Republican, said in a statement his office would consider entering a “contractual relationship” with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services to provide human resources to staff. […]

It was a joint decision between DAS and legislative leadership for the state agency not to get involved in the hiring, Senate GOP officials said. A DAS spokeswoman directed questions to the Legislature. Separately, Democrats were not involved in the decision to hire an HR director, according to Ron Parker, staff director for Senate Democrats.

Experts on sexual harassment issues say the in-house setup raises questions about accountability. Jennifer Drobac, a professor at Indiana University’s law school who studies sexual harassment, said there needs to be clarity on where this manager will report. The job description notes the person will work independently to review and investigate issues, but the exact structure of command is still being sorted out, according to Senate GOP staff.

A November 13 statement clarified that the new “position will report to the secretary of Senate and the chief clerk of the House, who both are political appointees.” Employees of the Iowa House and Senate, non-partisan Legislative Services Agency, and state Ombudsman’s Office will be covered.

Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson conducted an internal investigation of allegations that emerged during court hearings on Anderson’s civil suit. Dix tapped the number two lawmaker on the Senate GOP leadership team, Senate President Jack Whitver, to oversee Smithson’s investigation.

Senior analyst Jim Friedrich left the Senate GOP caucus staff in September, a hint that Smithson had corroborated some of Anderson’s claims. Other colleagues had testified in court about Friedrich’s crude bullying of women. However, Dix’s top aide Ed Failor, Jr. refused to say whether Friedrich was fired or asked to resign.

Soon after, a $1.75 million settlement reached in the Anderson case included a clause stating the deal “is not to be construed as an admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of the State of Iowa or any of the Released Parties, and that the State of Iowa and all Released Parties expressly deny any such liability or wrongdoing.”

Iowa taxpayers are on the hook for that $1.75 million payment, but we won’t find out what Smithson learned about the work climate at the statehouse. Rodriguez reported on November 12 that Senate GOP leaders confirmed Smithson finished his investigation, and don’t plan to share any of his findings with the public.

“Everybody in personnel has an expectation of privacy … where they can say what they want to say with an expectation that it’s not going to end up in the newspaper,” [Failor] said. […]

Anderson said she understands privacy concerns, but there’s a lack of transparency in not sharing general information about what was done and what’s being done to make the office better.

“Why all the secrecy?” she asked. “This is the place where our laws are made. The people’s house … why the secrecy?” […]

Nicole Bedera, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on sexual assailants, questioned the independence of an in-house investigation. She said that’s true even if people accused of harassment are no longer working at the statehouse.

“If the allegation is that there’s a climate that is permissive of sexual harassment, that means that everyone in the Legislature needs to be under some scrutiny, not just the people who’ve been named at this point,” she said. “The only way that the entire climate can be under scrutiny is if it’s an external investigation.”

Dix confirmed in a November 13 statement that Smithson’s findings “will not be made public” because “employees of the Senate have an expectation of privacy in these matters.” O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans said his group believes Senate Republicans “are taking a shortsighted position” on the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

“The taxpayers of Iowa are the ones who are left to pay the court judgment, but Senate leaders are depriving the taxpayers of a full understanding of what the investigation found,” Evans said.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer said in a written statement about the new human resources position, “House Republicans will not tolerate any form of harassment. Period.”

Why should anyone believe assurances from her or Dix when we don’t even know what happened on the Senate staff, where Friedrich faced no consequences for years, despite multiple complaints from Anderson and others?

At a press conference this morning, Governor Kim Reynolds called for releasing Smithson’s report, if he uncovered new information that was not part of the public record surrounding Anderson’s court case. Names of staffers involved could be redacted to protect personal privacy, the governor suggested. But Reynolds raised “no objections about the Legislature hiring an HR staffer instead of removing that role from the influence of legislative leaders.” (The setup gives employees more grounds to fear retaliation than if an outside agency were handling the work.)

Alluding to Friedrich’s departure, the governor has also called on Senate Republicans to disclose why the longtime senior analyst is no longer employed at the statehouse.

During her monthly WHO-AM radio call-in show Monday [November 13], Gov. Kim Reynolds commended the legislative leaders for creating the position as hiring “a step in the right direction.”

However, the governor said she believed the Legislature should abide by a recent law that says documents revealing why state workers are fired, demoted or resign to avoid termination are public records.

“We (the executive branch) have to live by those rules,” she said. “It would seem that it would be fair if they would live within the same parameters that we do. … I think that they need to be transparent with the people of Iowa.”

The governor’s latest comments on this controversy are quite different from the stance she took in the immediate aftermath of the Anderson trial. When Dix made no staff changes and ordered an internal investigation supervised by his right-hand man, Reynolds backed up the Iowa Senate GOP leader.

“I understand that Sen. Dix has also instituted a zero-tolerance policy and the Senate is conducting an investigation into the full scope of what came out at the trial,” Reynolds said. “So I am appreciative in the steps that they are taking, and I have faith in Sen. Dix that he … has taken the necessary steps to make sure that is not going to be tolerated in the workplace.”

Reynolds may feel more pressure now to distance herself from Dix because sexual harassment has become a much more salient issue lately. Republican Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky reacted decisively when sexual harassment involving GOP state lawmakers and staff made news in his state.

Dix has shown repeatedly that minimizing political fallout is a higher priority for him than creating a professional work environment or holding people accountable for inappropriate behavior or discrimination. Remember, the official line from Senate GOP leaders–in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary–is that Anderson was fired because of her work product. Releasing even general conclusions from Smithson’s report, or the reason Friedrich resigned or was fired, could blow the cover story for Anderson’s dismissal.

Dix made sure any investigation would happen in-house, where he could control its scope and keep its findings secret. Reynolds’ remarks today should not obscure the fact that she gave her blessing to that approach.

Iowans will likely never learn the full scale of misconduct that led to a $1.75 million payout.

P.S.- In an interview with the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich, Anderson said she’s encouraged by the avalanche of exposes about powerful men in the political or entertainment world.

“It’s reassuring and it gives me hope,” Anderson said. “After going through what I went through — it was a battle for me — and I’m really glad that the issue is getting the focus and the attention that it deserves and that women are essentially unifying, standing up for one another and speaking about their experiences to help put an end to this.”

Other Republican women in the Iowa Senate didn’t stand up for her when she was fired.

“Oh, it made me so pissed,” she said. “I mean, these were people that, we had each other’s cell phone numbers in our cell phones. We talked off hours, we had meals together. We had experiences in caucus at 2 o’clock in the morning. It was a huge disappointment. I was hurt that I didn’t hear anything from Governor Reynolds and Senator [Joni] Ernst. Truly.”

Reynolds maintains she was unaware of sexual harassment on the caucus staff when she was a Republican state senator in 2009 and 2010. Ernst has likewise said she neither witnessed nor was informed about harassment of women on the staff when she served from 2011 through 2014.

UPDATE: Speaking to reporters on the afternoon of November 13 (full video here), Dix said the Senate will put the decision on hiring a human resources person “on hold” until they can consult with professionals in the field on how to proceed. When pressed on the issue, Dix explained, “I’m a farmer. I don’t deal with human relations issues on a daily basis,” and that’s why he is seeking advice from experts. Why he didn’t seek out that expertise before was not clear.

Dix confirmed that there is no written report summarizing Smithson’s findings. Interviews with various staffers are in the process of being transcribed. He repeated that he will not release any of that information because staff spoke to investigators with an expectation of privacy.

During the internal review, “No one has brought to me any new complaints. None,” Dix told reporters. (Gee, how surprising that no one came to the majority leader with new complaints after he rejected an independent review of the work environment.) He said he has reassured staff that there will not be any retribution for reporting problems at work. He repeated that there is “zero tolerance” of any harassment. Asked why Senate Democrats were not consulted about the investigation or plans to hire a human resources person, Dix said the allegations were related to what was going on in his own caucus, so that’s where he focused his attention.

Again, Dix insisted that Anderson was fired because of her work performance. He doesn’t dispute that she was sexually harassed. Nothing came out at trial that wasn’t already known, he says.

Asked whether he believes Anderson, Dix answered, “She was not fired for that reason. She was fired for work performance. And the other things are all well-documented, and items that we–were not new. […] She was fired for her work product over a long period of time. Her performance had been documented, and that is the reason for her dismissal, not any of these claims.” He acknowledged that “the jury saw it differently.” A reporter followed up, pointing out that at trial, one of the employees testified that Anderson’s memo detailing a hostile work environment was “the last straw” proving she was not a “team player.” Dix said, “I’m not familiar with that, no.” Did Dix believe Anderson was sexually harassed? Dix said that was “well-documented,” and “nobody has ever disputed that.” He said he believed everyone testified truthfully at trial.

Dix dodged questions about why Friedrich left the Senate GOP caucus and why that staff change happened roughly two months after a Polk County jury found in Anderson’s favor. “He brought his letter of resignation, and we accepted it,” Dix repeated at least half a dozen times to reporters trying to follow up.

Shortly after Dix’s media availability, Upmeyer announced in a statement, “The House will continue with the hiring of a human resources professional to assist legislative employees.”

SECOND UPDATE: Obradovich called on Dix to step down as leader in her column about the “disastrous” news conference.

Dix, a farmer from Shell Rock, was a hot mess. He continued to maintain that he fired Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director, in 2013 because of poor work performance. Yet he also said he believed the testimony that she was harassed by a co-worker.

“There was nothing to my knowledge in the trial that came out that was not truthful. I believe everybody testified truthfully,” he said. […]

He fumbled through an explanation of why he wouldn’t release a “report” of the investigation conducted by the secretary of the Senate after the lawsuit. […]

Dix, however, couldn’t even clearly state that a report existed, let alone that he has read one. He said there were no new allegations. But he also said transcription of interviews conducted during the investigation was still in progress. He also said he hadn’t read any transcripts or listened to any of the interviews. […]

Asked if there’s a written report on his desk that summarizes the findings of the investigation, Dix said no.

However, Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson, who was in the room and whose staff conducted the investigation, spoke up with Dix’s permission. “There is a written report,” he said. He declined to elaborate.

Meanwhile, House Republican staff told the AP’s Rodriguez that Speaker Upmeyer agrees with the governor: the Senate should release additional information from Smithson’s investigation.

Rodriguez later updated her story for the AP:

“From my perspective, I want to be completely open and transparent,” the Shell Rock Republican said. “We want to make sure that whatever we do, it has been done in the best possible way and the most accountable way.”

It’s unclear when an independent organization will be hired and what such an entity will do. Dix said that will be determined, and the outside group could decide to investigate his office’s workplace culture. He didn’t offer more specifics about a timetable for bidding out the work or the cost involved. […]

Dix doubled down on his view Tuesday despite the governor’s remarks. Colin Tadlock, a spokesman for Upmeyer, said the speaker agreed with Reynolds that any additional information should be released.

Dix did offer some new information about the internal investigation during his press conference, including that interviews with legislative employees about alleged harassment incidents were recorded but he had not finished listening to the recordings. Dix said his staff did listen, and they informed him no additional complaints were reported beyond what was shared at the trial. But it’s unclear if there was ever a report about the findings. Dix indicated there wasn’t, while Charles Smithson, secretary of the Senate, said at the same press conference there was one.

Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Lynda Waddington argued that Upmeyer and Reynolds “must take over” the Iowa Senate’s sexual harassment investigation.

Dix had no answer as to why a key perpetrator of sexual harassment, identified at trial, was allowed to remain on staff for weeks following the court verdict. He shrugged off questions about why a law he helped pass this year that requires public disclosure of documents related to the resignation, demotion or firing of public employees wasn’t put into practice. He declined to reveal if any other staff members had been demoted as a result of bad behavior.

Dix immediately reassured reporters that no new incidents of sexual harassment had occurred, only to later admit he had no direct knowledge of the interviews he ordered conducted. Transcripts, he said, were underway, and he had not listened to recordings.

Dix could not provide a reason why, during the internal investigation he ordered, staff members should trust there would be no retaliation for reporting ongoing harassment in the workplace.

And now, after spending weeks not communicating with his caucus, announcing and then reconsidering the hiring of a human resources director, and making unilateral decisions regarding how the state should protect the health and safety of its workforce, Dix has decided more taxpayer money must be spent to hire a professional consultant.

The Republican law eliminating most public employee collective bargaining rights included a provision making documents on dismissals, resignations, and demotions subject to open records requests. However, the Iowa legislature is entirely exempt from the public records law.

Although Dix projected confidence during his press availability, he failed to demonstrate that he has dealt with this controversy competently and in good faith. But again: it’s too little, too late for Reynolds to complain about a lack of transparency. The governor should have used her political capital in July and August to demand an independent investigation that would be released to the public.

LATER UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski obtained an e-mail Assistant Senate Majority Leader Randy Feenstra sent to his colleagues, complaining of “being kept in the dark” about these developments.

“I am an assistant leader; since the last day of session, we have had only one 20-minute assistant leaders meeting, which was just before our last caucus,” Feenstra wrote in the email obtained by the Register. “I have had no phone calls or e-mails concerning any plans that are occurring or have occurred in the Republican Senate.”

Feenstra added, “I put my name on the ballot and won, No one else should be making decisions on behalf of the Senate except those that have taken the risk and won the seat of Senator. I represent 60,000 people, and frankly the entire State, This means I, along with the other Senators, are responsible for what goes on. It’s time we all get updated on where we are at.”

Feenstra declined to comment Tuesday when reached by the Register, saying he hadn’t intended for his email to become public. […]

“Clearly, whatever is there they don’t want out,” [State Senator Rick] Bertrand said in an interview. “I can tell you on the record that I am very disappointed with the Senate’s leadership; they have kind of taken the tactic of just silence and that this will go away. That is the strategy. I am disappointed that they haven’t shared any of the protocols that are supposedly being put in place. I don’t feel that any significant changes have been made.”

Petroski also reported that Eric Johansen, who has been the Senate GOP caucus staff director since 2012, “is leaving his post, effective Dec. 1, to accept a leadership post with a private equity and venture capital firm. Johansen told the Des Moines Register his departure was long planned” and is unrelated to Anderson’s lawsuit. Johansen fired Anderson in May 2013, hours after she had “handed a memo to Johansen outlining her concerns and specifically challenging him and his bosses on their motives for complaining about her work product.”

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