Nate Boulton's victim-blaming is harmful and unnecessary

State Senator Nate Boulton responded this week to the misconduct allegations now standing in the way of his full participation in Iowa Senate business next year.

Two of the points he raised would likely have been sufficient to convince Iowa Senate Ethics Committee members to dismiss the complaint against him when they consider the matter on December 20.

Unfortunately, Boulton chose not to leave it there. Most of his written response supports a third argument, seeking to discredit his accuser. The victim-blaming was not only unnecessary, but harmful.

Sharon Wegner alleged that Boulton repeatedly touched her buttocks non-consensually at an event in November 2015. I’ve enclosed below her complaint to the Ethics Committee. Wegner shared the same story in the Des Moines Register article that ended Boulton’s campaign for governor in May.

In the immediate aftermath of those revelations, Boulton said he remembered certain events differently but didn’t dispute the specifics of accounts by Wegner and unnamed accusers: “I think if I add context it quickly becomes victim-blaming, and I don’t want to go down that path. All I can say is if someone felt that I did something inappropriate, I apologize for that.”

Boulton stuck to the same line in July, when he explained his refusal to resign from the Senate.

I have said that I remember these situations differently, with a differing context, but declined to share more to avoid shaming, blaming, or excuse making. I absolutely do have differing accounts, but my perspective is likely clouded by intoxication. Moreover, my perspective has less relevance than the experiences of those who felt that I crossed lines. Excessive drinking has no doubt led me to misread appropriate social boundaries and make choices that I would never tolerate while sober.

Paige Fiedler, one of Iowa’s most highly-regarded employment attorneys, submitted this 36-page document to the Senate on Boulton’s behalf.

The first point notes that the alleged misconduct happened before Boulton was elected to the legislature or sworn in as a senator. Since the Senate Code of Ethics applies to members of the Senate, it would be “fundamentally unfair” and possibly unconstitutional to apply the code’s terms to prior behavior, “Like requiring a worker to follow the regulations in an employee handbook–years before he is ever hired […].”

In addition, the document says the Senate code prohibits “harassment or retaliation” in the context of a workplace environment. “The personnel guidelines clearly did not apply to a Senator’s private conduct that was unconnected to his duties or colleagues.”

Both arguments are reasonable. Senate Ethics Committee members (three Democrats and three Republicans) probably would have been receptive, in the absence of any accounts of non-consensual touching by Boulton since January 2017. I have written and still think Boulton should have resigned when the sexual misconduct allegations came to light. I don’t accept an artificial distinction between harassment at work and the same behavior in a social setting. But I can see how it would be problematic for a Senate committee to enforce a code of conduct prior to a person’s election.

Boulton’s response should have ended there. Instead, a lengthy narrative section and 29 pages of exhibits sought to undermine Wegner’s credibility.

Boulton “concedes that he was extremely intoxicated” on the night in question, while Wegner signed a sworn statement under penalty of perjury, giving her account more weight.

Yet the document asserts, “The allegations in the complaint do not seem consistent with the facts.” Some of Wegner’s claims “do not ring true, particularly when she describes [Boulton] as someone with a great deal of power and of whom she was afraid.” What are these “facts”?

  • The two lawyers were acquainted socially and professionally, were Facebook friends, and chatted informally sometimes through social media. So what? Boulton was a prominent attorney in a related area of practice.
  • Months before the disputed evening in November 2015, Wegner arranged to meet Boulton for coffee and told him she planned to attend a workers’ compensation seminar and one of his campaign events. So what? Boulton hadn’t yet touched her non-consensually.
  • An associate in Boulton’s firm, Sarah Baumgartner, signed an affidavit stating that Wegner flirted with Boulton at an October 2015 “cocktail hour” reception, making her uncomfortable. Her husband confirms she expressed those views to him at the time. So what? Baumgartner wasn’t present for the event at the center of Wegner’s complaint. Whether someone is being friendly or flirting is a subjective call, but even if Baumgartner accurately perceived that Wegner flirted in October 2015, her observations have no bearing on non-consensual contact occurring weeks later.
  • Wegner continued to interact with Boulton, pursuing his professional advice and attending one of his campaign events months later. So what? Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel in May, Wegner acknowledged meeting with Boulton months after the incident.

    About six months after that night at Wooly’s, Wegner said she emailed Boulton seeking guidance on a pair of workers’ compensation cases she had picked up. Boulton specializes in that area of the law, and he was the only experienced workers’ compensation attorney she knew, she said.

    “I do remember being scared to go to his office and like silently praying in my head, ‘Please don’t close the door,’” Wegner said. “And he didn’t, and it was very professional and above board. But walking in I felt uneasy, and it was one of those, ‘Why did you put yourself in that situation, Sharon?’”

  • Wegner sent Boulton a short congratulatory message after he was elected to the Senate and “liked” a Facebook photo from his swearing-in ceremony in January 2017. So what? I like a lot of social media posts celebrating happy events for people whose actions I may not always condone.
  • Throughout 2017, Wegner occasionally “liked” Boulton’s social media posts relating to public policy issues. So what? She still agrees with him about education funding, tax credits, closing mental health institutes, and racist demonstrations in Charlottesville.
  • None of those trivial points explain why Wegner should not be believed. What could she gain by making up this story? Remember, Boulton has no clear memory of the disputed events. From the concluding paragraphs of his submission to the Ethics Committee:

    Senator Boulton deeply regrets whatever it was that happened on November 20, 2015. While he may not be able to sincerely apologize for assaults he does not believe occurred, he recognizes that by drinking too much, he put himself in a position where he is unable to say for sure.

    Wegner provided this comment to Bleeding Heartland.

    I unequivocally and categorically deny the allegations contained in Mr. and Ms. Baumgartner’s affidavits. It is Senator Boulton’s actions that bring us here today, not mine. Mr. Boulton does not deny the interactions that form the basis of the ethics complaint, and instead attempts to victim blame me regarding a wholly separate and manufactured incident unrelated to the complaint at hand. I have been forthright about my professional interactions with Senator Boulton, and the emails referenced in his complaint are merely the evidence of those professional interactions and are quite frankly immaterial and irrelevant. My continued professional reliance on Sen. Boulton after the November 2015 incident merely goes to show his stature in the legal community.

    While Senator Boulton attempts to utilize his associate to victim-blame and misdirect the conversation to an incident that did not occur, I will not let him hide behind smoke and mirrors, and I respectfully request that the Senate Ethics Committee does not allow it either. I merely ask that Senator Boulton be held accountable for his actions.

    The totality of Boulton’s response sends a damaging message to women who have experienced harassment or assault. If anyone perceives you as flirting with a man at any time, you won’t be taken seriously if you later claim he touched you without consent. To pass as an authentic survivor, you must avoid all social or professional contact with the person you accused. Engaging in minimal polite communication–even months or years later–will lead others to conclude you probably are a liar.

    Efforts to discredit or humiliate Wegner can only discourage others from sharing their #MeToo stories.

    The reality is that even after severely traumatizing events like rape, victims may remain friendly with attackers for a variety of reasons.

    Boulton didn’t supervise Wegner’s work or control her career, but he had expertise that could benefit her clients. He was a person of influence, especially after being elected to the legislature. Dozens of well-known local attorneys contributed to his campaigns for Senate or governor.

    Even now, Boulton has powerful allies. A big gun employment lawyer submitted his response to Wegner’s complaint. Alluding to support in Democratic or labor circles, central Iowa political consultant Will Oppermann commented on Twitter this week, “High level staffers don’t talk about the need for Nate to resign for fear of not being afforded opportunities in the future, or even blacklisted by those that still stand with him.”

    Wegner was brave to come forward. I believe her, regardless of how the Ethics Committee handles her complaint. Boulton could have defended himself without portraying his accuser as a flirt and a liar. Choosing that approach raises questions about his commitment to eradicating all forms of harassment from Iowa political life.

    Appendix: Full text of Sharon Wegner’s complaint against State Senator Nate Boulton:

    Affidavit of Ash Bruxvoort, supporting Wegner’s complaint:

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