Lawsuit over Iowa Senate Republican harassment will be settled

Attorneys for the state and a former Iowa Senate Republican staffer have agreed to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register today. In July, a Polk County jury awarded Kirsten Anderson $1.4 million for past emotional distress and $795,000 for future emotional distress, after hearing testimony about a hostile workplace environment and alleged discrimination and retaliation within the Senate GOP caucus.

Under the settlement, Anderson will receive $1.045 million, and the state will pay an additional $705,000 for her attorneys’ fees.

Michael Carroll, a lawyer who represented Anderson, told The Des Moines Register Thursday he and his client are hopeful that Iowa Senate Majority [leader] Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, is beginning to implement changes promised during the trial that will address issued raised in the lawsuit. With the help of the Iowa attorney general’s office, he said believes the Iowa Capitol will be a better place to work.

“This case was never about politics, and it always about the law. We would have brought the case whether it was Republicans or Democrats. It does not matter what political party people are from,” Carroll said.

“Second, we believe that this is a good deal for both my client and the people of the state of Iowa. For my client, it ends the litigation forever. It has been a four-year slog and she needs to have this done. The people of the State of Iowa are saving a substantial amount of money because of this settlement,” Carroll said.

The state had asked for a new trial or a substantial reduction in the damage award, citing problems with the jury instructions and closing argument by Carroll.

Anderson had asked the court to order specific actions to improve the workplace environment and human resources policies within the Iowa Senate. Earlier this month, the most notorious harasser left the GOP caucus staff.

The state’s general fund will pay to resolve this litigation. If Majority Leader Dix had any sense of honor or shame, he would raise $1.75 million from private donors, rather than sticking Iowa taxpayers with the bill.

In early August, Republican senators rejected State Senator Rick Bertrand’s call for new leadership of the caucus. Governor Kim Reynolds likewise expressed support for Dix and didn’t call for any Republican fundraising to cover the cost of Anderson’s lawsuit.

State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald criticized Reynolds in July for failing to use her clout to demand more action from Senate leaders on creating a professional workplace. He’s still “outraged” that the settlement payment will come out of the state’s general fund.

Fitzgerald contends Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, should have demanded the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, from his caucus leadership post in the wake of the court case.

“Besides throwing money on the ground, this sets a tone for the whole state in business and everywhere else,” Fitzgerald said. He suggested that some Iowans will believe that if sexual harassment is tolerated by Iowa Senate Republicans, lawmakers are not taking the matter seriously.

The state could have settled this case quietly before trial for $1.25 million, but the Attorney General’s office offered Anderson only $100,000.

Dix was foolish to allow this case to go to trial, where multiple witnesses supported Anderson’s account of appalling sexist behavior in the caucus. The idea that senior staff fired Anderson solely because of her work product was not credible. For one thing, the caucus director let her go only hours after she had submitted a written statement alleging harassment and discrimination.

In addition, neither Republican senators nor top caucus staffers have insisted on anything like a normal political communications operation over the last four years. Little has changed on that front since the trial, although last week, someone posted one tweet, the first new content for the Iowa Senate GOP on Twitter since April 5:

That post is not visible on the main @IASenateGOP feed; you have to look at “tweets and replies.” No one has updated the Senate Republican Facebook page since early April or published any new press releases on the official website since the middle of August.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. In August, Anderson and her husband switched their party registrations to Democrat.

UPDATE: Kathie Obradovich reported for the Des Moines Register,

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix said Democrats are “going to do what they’re going to do, but at the end of the day it’s one of those things where state employees are involved and this kind of thing happens all the time across state government.” […]

Update: After this column posted, Ed Failor Jr. of the Senate Republican Caucus Staff called to clarify that Dix was talking about lawsuit awards being common in state government, not sexual harassment.

Dix said in an interview on Wednesday, before the settlement was announced, that he’s fixing the problems and that they occurred before his time as leader.

“I mean, I’m taking a leadership role in putting in place policies that respect worker and ensure that they have a safe environment to work in. And you know, the things that took place, took place prior to my leadership,” he said.

That’s not entirely true. Dix was minority leader at the time Anderson was fired in 2013, just seven hours after presenting a list of harassment complaints to supervisors. He was in a position to prevent the situation from becoming a huge legal and political liability.

Democrats have sharply criticized the responses from Reynolds and Dix. Obradovich noted that the Iowa Senate Majority Fund created an online survey to call attention to the fact that taxpayer dollars will cover the cost of this lawsuit.

LATER UPDATE: The State Appeal Board approved the settlement on October 2. During the meeting, that board’s chair State Auditor Mary Mosiman apologized to the public, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register.

“As the state auditor, as a fellow woman in public service, I just feel the need to apologize that this was able to happen. It happened in government and I am a government official,” Mosiman said. […]

“We are here to serve the public. And that means the people who serve should have a mutual respect for the people of Iowa and also a mutual respect for each other,” Mosiman said. “Harassment and discrimination should not happen in the workplace, and specifically in government.”

State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a Democrat, has strongly suggested that Senate Republicans raise money to help pay off the settlement. But Mosiman said Fitzgerald’s suggestion was hypothetical and the decision to pay the settlement is a matter of law.

“There is no other source of funds for this. That is one of the reasons the apology to the people of Iowa I feel is necessary,” Mosiman said. “These are public tax dollars. It was decided in a court of law. This is our job now as the State Appeal Board. The general fund is the most appropriate place if we have to pay for something like this.”

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  • Thank you

    I hope this gets plenty of public attention. Of all the good and useful things this money could have been used for, it’s nursing home inspections and visits that most come to my mind.