Lawmakers Scramble to Address Sexual Harassment Claims

Posted in Sexual Harassment on November 28, 2017

By John D. Winer

November 28, 2017

The scope and impact of recent workplace sexual misconduct claims involving civic leaders, on both sides of the aisle, has hit fever pitch. Each day brings new revelations about disturbing behavior committed by people in positions of power who are supposed to stand up for the most vulnerable in our society. Lawmakers from Capitol Hill to State Capitals across the nation are being accused of inappropriate behavior and political institutions are under fire for failing to recognize the widespread problem.

A tidal wave of accusations involving sexual harassment, secret settlements and staff cover-ups has Congress clamoring to find a way to respond to these mounting allegations. This comes as the nation reaches a tipping point that is shifting towards believing the accusers rather than siding with the accused. There’s a collective sense of “enough is enough” as more victims speak out.

California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra is the first lawmaker to leave office amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Another Los Angeles area Democrat, Sen. Tony Mendoza has been removed from his leadership position as chair of the Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee after being accused of inappropriate behavior with several women.

In a recent Los Angeles Daily News article, I told the paper, “the sexually harassing legislators are very unlucky to be living in a state where most of the voters are Democrats, because I think Democrats take this issue far more seriously.”

Minnesota Senator Al Franken is accused of groping several women while he posed with them for photographs. These revelations surfaced just days after a Los Angeles radio news anchor claimed Franken kissed her against her will. Leeann Tweeden shared a photograph that showed the former comedian groping her while she slept in 2006. Franken says he’s embarrassed and ashamed but would get back to work.

Another highly respected Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House, admitted he settled a wrongful termination complaint in 2015 with a former employee who claimed she was fired because she would not submit to his sexual advances. While Conyers denied the allegations, he gave up his leadership position as top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee admitting the congressional investigation into the possible misconduct has become a distraction.

Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has been accused by more than half a dozen women of either sexual assault or unwanted sexual advances towards minors while he was in his 30s working as a deputy district attorney. If Alabama voters choose Moore to represent them in the U.S. Senate, leadership has threatened to expel him from the chamber but that would require a two-thirds vote.

Women of Congress are now speaking out about a “creep list” that contains the names of male members who are known for sexually inappropriate behavior with younger employees and interns. The “unwritten rules” warn staffers to be extra careful of lawmakers who sleep in their offices, and to avoid finding yourself alone with these notorious congressmen or senators in elevators, at late-night meetings or at events where alcohol is being consumed. The secret roster also told employees to think twice before reporting bad behavior involving a boss, because it could cost them their career.

These stunning revelations are just the tip of the iceberg as more lawmakers reveal that more accusations of sexual misconduct are on the horizon, forcing Congress to deal with this urgent crisis. In recent committee testimony, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said, “I think the culture in this country has been awakened to the fact that we have a serious epidemic in the workplace, in all professions, in all walks of life and it’s incumbent on those who are in authority to address it and address it swiftly.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) said that the issue of sexual assault on Capitol Hill is a pervasive one that needs to be changed. The two lawmakers have teamed up to introduce the “Me Too Congress Act” aimed at making the reporting process more transparent by holding people accountable. The bill eliminates mandatory non-disclosure agreements, allows the option for mediation and counseling and forces members of Congress to repay any discrimination settlements. There’s similar legislation being proposed in the House but Gillibrand says that bill doesn’t go far enough.

This eye-opening crisis of workplace harassment within our government and the institution’s antiquated reporting system, which is more focused on discouraging victims from reporting sexual misconduct than addressing it, must be rectified. It’s our responsibility to demand more of our political leaders who are entrusted with standing up for equality, justice and basic human dignity.

John Winer is a Sexual Harassment attorney in California. You can read more of his work as an Oakland personal injury lawyer and his firm Winer, Mckenna & Burritt here.