Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sexual Harassment - The New Environment And The Alaska Legislature

Today I got an email with a statement by Alaska State Senator Berta Garner about an investigation into a sexual harassment of State Senator David Wilson.  Senator Berta Gardner is my state Senator.  She's smart, warm, and not prone to speak without doing her homework.

I must admit that this is the first I've heard about this.  I'll plead Anchorage International Film Festival as my alibi for missing this last week.  Here are some earlier reports on the incident:

APRN piece dated Dec. 7, 2017.

KTUU report dated this afternoon.  It includes video of Sen. Wilson's statement, in which he asks for the Legislative Agency report be released along with the video, which is below. (I can't get the video to embed right, something's wrong with the code, so go to the KTUU link.  It's just blank on Safari and on Firefox there's a message saying the KTUU link is insecure.  I'm just deleting the embed code. Sorry.)

Here's Senator Gardner's response to the Legislative Report.

Senator Gardner Responds to Legislative Report on Behavior of Senator Wilson
ANCHORAGE - Today, Senate Minority Leader and member of the Senate Rules Committee Berta Gardner gave the following statement in response to a vote taken to release a report from the Legislative Affairs Agency on the professional conduct of Senator David Wilson and his interaction with a legislative staffer. The members of the committee voted unanimously to release the content of the report, with the support of the staffer involved in the incident.
“Senator Wilson took out his cellphone, placed it down at the level of the hem of her skirt from a foot away for four seconds, saying he was going to record a closed meeting of House leadership. This behavior is consistent with what the staffer reported at the time. Such behavior is clearly intrusive, intimidating, and inappropriate to the staffer. It is also grossly unprofessional and unethical behavior from anyone, let alone a sitting member of the Senate.
“Coupled with the fact that Senator Wilson slapped a political reporter across the face in the Capitol building a short time before this incident, it demonstrates a disturbing pattern of poor judgement, bullying, and aggressive behavior. Senator Wilson should acknowledge his bad behavior, and apologize immediately to both the reporter and the staffer, taking full responsibility for his actions.”
Members of the press with questions may contact the Alaska Senate Democratic Press Secretary, Jeanne Devon, at 907-269-0129.

Senator Wilson argues that he's been exonerated.  I found a copy of the report at MidnightSun in a form that I can't seem to embed here.  You can see it at the Midnight Sun.  Here's a screenshot of the factual findings.

The report, by Skiff Lobaugh of the Legislative Affairs Agency - a pretty objective body does that analysis for legislators - goes on to look at the federal workplace harassment law and then matches the incident to the law.  It doesn't at all match the quid pro quo definition of harassment.  The second form requires a 'hostile work environment" which looks at

  1. frequency,
  2. severity, 
  3. whether it interferes with the employee's ability to her work, and
  4. whether it affects the employee's well being
Lobaugh noted that there was just one incident reported, that his intention was ambiguous - it seemed he was jokingly trying to record a behind closed doors meeting that the employee had been assigned to keep people out.   It did, he found, affect the employee's well being in the short run, but not in the long run.

He did acknowledge the unequal balance of power between an elected official and a legislator staffer who can be fired without cause.  

I'd note that while the employee discussed the incident at the time with others, including legislators, she never filed a complaint.  The staffer, on hearing various reports on the incident, requested a clarification from Leg Legal (the legal advisors to the legislature) about whether he was required to investigate since there are punishments for people who know but don't report, and was told he should.

We're in new territory here as long term social norms are getting reevaluated.  I think many of us tend to get defensive when accused of something we believe we didn't do.  My experience is we get worse if we actually did it.  I don't see how lowering a cell phone to hem level of a staffer's skirt is necessary to try to record a meeting behind the staffer and behind a door.  Playfulness only works between people who know each other well and/or are relatively equal in power.

Sen. Gardner's memo raises the issue of this incident happening about the same time as Sen. Wilson was reported as slapping a journalist, which is clearly out of line.  (The journalist didn't press charges.)

I find it interesting that the first two accusations we've heard of sexual harassment of Alaska state legislators in the post Weinstein era have been against a first term Alaska Native and a first term African-American.  Is this a coincidence?  The vast majority of legislators are white.  There is only one African-American in the legislature and a handful of Alaska Natives out of a total of 60 in both houses.

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