Iowa Senate GOP staffer alleges hostile work environment, sexual harassment (updated)

Kirsten Anderson lost her job on Friday afternoon as communications director for the Iowa Senate Republicans. Today she went public alleging that she was fired after documenting sexual harassment by GOP state senators and staffers. WHO-TV broadcast Dave Price's exclusive interview with Anderson Sunday morning, and I recommend watching the whole clip at their website. After the jump I've posted highlights from Anderson's claims and a denial from Ed Failor Jr., a top staffer for Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix.

As a bonus, I enclose below your laugh for the day: a screenshot from the official Iowa Senate GOP website as of 7 pm on Sunday. The front page includes a link to the Des Moines Register's blog and the headline, "Iowa Senate GOP staffer claims she was fired for protesting sexual harassment; Dix aide issues strong denial." I wonder whether Anderson was the only person on that staff who knew how to update the website. It's also possible that the Des Moines Register political blog headlines automatically feed into that box on the front page, and no other Senate GOP staff checked the site over the weekend.  

Anderson told Price that she had worked for the Iowa Senate Republicans for five years, and that problems with the workplace environment predated her tenure there. She asserted that on Friday morning, she asked Senate GOP leadership and staff to work with her on "changing the workplace environment," providing documentation of problems. She said,

Anderson: Women especially should not have their body parts scrutinized, objectified. People should not be ridiculed or mocked for simply the color of pants that they're wearing, and those sorts of things were taking place at the Capitol.

Price: So, they were, when you say that, were they talking about you, your physical attributes?

Anderson: Not only me, but other people, other women.

Price: And who was saying this?

Anderson: Various people. Not only staff, but legislators as well.

Anderson declined to name names of Republican staffers or lawmakers who allegedly said "things that would make you blush," "objectifying women." She added that the sexual harassment policy in place at the statehouse is "nearly 30 years old" and needs to change.

Anderson said she had discussed problems in the workplace environment with a GOP Senate staff supervisor before Friday, but nothing was done. She told Price that she never brought up this issue directly with state senators who allegedly made the inappropriate comments.

Ed Failor Jr. joined the Senate GOP staff shortly after Bill Dix became minority leader late last year. Speaking to the Des Moines Register's William Petroski today, Failor vehemently denied Anderson's allegations.

Dix aide Ed Failor Jr. said Anderson was terminated after failing to improve what he described as substandard work performance.

"I can assure you that under Senator Dix's leadership, sexual harassment  is not and will not be tolerated," Failor said.

Anderson, 34, had worked for the Iowa Senate GOP Caucus since 2008, and been the caucus communications director during the 2013 session. She had previously worked for nearly two years as a staff assistant to former U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, and worked for five years as executive director of the Iowa Architectural Foundation. [...]

Dix aide Failor said Sunday that Anderson was terminated only after her substandard work performance had been documented over an extended period of time.

"She was given an opportunity to improve her work performance and it did not improve," Failor said. As a result, she was dismissed, he said.

Failor made similar comments to Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson.

Anderson told Price that when she was fired, they did not give a reason for terminating her employment.

If Anderson was so incompetent, I wonder why she wasn't let go after Dix became minority leader. That's a natural time for staff turnover. I also wonder why leadership would fire her so close to the end of the legislative session. Why not keep her on for another week and then quietly let her know they'll be hiring someone else for next year?

Here's the screen shot I mentioned above. I don't know exactly how long the link about the sexual harassment story was on the front page. It's not the world's most up to date site--other "latest news" on the front page was more than a month old ("Senate Republicans Call for True Tax Reform," Posted on April 15, 2013). If keeping the website current was one of Anderson's responsibilities as communications director, she could have done better. According to Henderson's report, "Anderson was responsible for the maintainance of the website." The Iowa Senate Democrats' website is updated much more regularly.

Iowa Senate GOP front page photo Screenshot2013-05-19at73536PM_zps075d96ed.png

As of Sunday evening, Anderson's name hasn't been removed from the list of Senate GOP staffers on the website.

Iowa Senate GOP screenshot photo Screenshot2013-05-19at70243PM_zps1643523a.png

MONDAY UPDATE: It appears that the "related headlines" box on the front page of the Iowa Senate Republicans website has an automatic feed. As of 10 am on May 20, two of the five headlines in the box were about the sexual harassment story.

 photo Screenshot2013-05-20at100551AM_zpsceebf04c.png

Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds commented on the allegations during their Monday morning press conference. Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson posted the audio and the highlights.

Governor Terry Branstad said this morning her allegations "should be investigated by the senate."

"It's a separate branch of government, so I think they have the right procedures in place and I think they should investigate and determine whether or not...these allegations are true or not," Branstad said during his weekly news conference. [...]

"I served in the Iowa Senate for two years, in '09 and '10. I don't currently serve in the Iowa Senate," Reynolds said during this morning's news conference. "I believe that we need to ensure that we have a safe and secure environment in which to work in. This is a legislative matter and I have confidence that the senate will address the situation in a timely manner."

Reynolds was asked by a reporter if she "experienced any evidence" of the kind of hostile work environment Anderson described during her television interview.

"When I was in the senate, there were 18 members in the senate caucus. I was very involved and engaged in our caucus, working with the team and I didn't experience any, no," Reynolds replied.

SECOND UPDATE: Anderson has retained an attorney, Michael Carroll, and will file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Jennifer Jacobs reported for the Des Moines Register,

In an interview with the Register Monday, Anderson, a married mother of a toddler son, said she complained about a pattern of male senators and staffers making sexually-charged comments. She made her complaints verbally more than once, as early as last fall, she said.

Anderson described the incidents, but didn't want to name names, saying this "is not about public embarrassment. My goal is to change the work environment at the Capitol." [...]

Anderson's lawyer, Michael J. Carroll, told the Register: "She and other women that work in and around the environment were victims of ... coarse and grotesque sexist conduct on a regular basis. Even though some of it was not directly targeted at her, she was exposed to it - and exposed to it for years."

The worst part, Carroll said, is that she was fired seven hours after she wrote about the inappropriate conduct in a memo. "That's retaliation and that's against the law," he said. [...]

[Anderson] said that at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, she handed Senate Republican Caucus Staff Director Eric Johansen a two-page typed memo that acknowledges his complaints about her work, but says she suspects his criticism was actually about the fact that she stood up to "the boys' club atmosphere in the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus."

Anderson's job was to write news releases, social media content, web content, newsletters and other materials.

Her memo says the criticism of her work was unfair because it centered on drafts of her writing, not the final versions, and that it was hard for her to learn important legislative details when she's excluded from key meetings.

Anderson wrote that she was willing to improve, but that she'd had no formal complaints about it in her five years as communications director. Her supervisors had "a sudden change" after she complained in November and December about the use of sexually-explicit, demeaning comments about women at work. In late January, her supervisors in a sit-down meeting told her she's "not to use contractions or plural possessives" and that she should use "fewer unnecessary words."

As of 7 pm on May 20, the Iowa Senate Republicans website includes a link to Jacobs' blog post in the "related headlines" box on the front page.

Senate President Pam Jochum told journalists on Monday that Senate leaders will review the chamber's sexual harassment policy this summer.

Jochum said at this point, there's nothing to investigate since Anderson hasn't filed a complaint.

"It really is a personnel issue," Jochum told reporters.

Mike Marshall is the secretary of the senate, a senate employee who helps manage staff as well as the debate in the senate. He told reporters today that the senate's written policy regarding sexual harassment is "about 20 years old" and there have been periodic training sessions with videos detailing what is and isn't appropriate in the workplace.

"It has been, in the past, provided for staff on a mandatory basis and then, individual senators on a voluntary basis," Marshall said.

THIRD UPDATE: Democratic State Senator Steve Sodders commented on May 20 that it was "strange" to see the governor call for an investigation of sexual harassment in the Iowa Senate, given that he rejected legislators' calls for an investigation of alleged problems at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown.

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