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Two Minnesota lawmakers propose House harassment plan

ST. PAUL — Two Minnesota lawmakers — a Republican woman and a Democratic man — have a plan to revamp the way the state House deals with sexual harassment allegations.

The plan, announced Monday, Dec. 11, would speed up the process for allegations to be addressed and allow anyone — not just fellow lawmakers — to make a complaint.

Rep. John Lesch, a St. Paul Democrat and city prosecutor by profession, and Rep. Marion O'Neill, a Republican and former small-business owner from Maple Grove, said their plan fills in needed holes in the House policy, which was last updated in 2004.

The state Senate policy hasn't been updated since 1990 and is so obviously outdated it contains references to human resources-type positions that no longer exist. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from Baxter, said similar proposals are being considered in that chamber.

Sexual harassment at the Minnesota Capitol is a big deal right now.

In the past month, two lawmakers — Republican Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center and Democratic Sen. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park — announced their resignations following allegations from multiple women of sexual harassment and lewd behavior.

In both cases, the women who alleged the most serious offenses were not lawmakers, and their stories revealed that the paths to bringing formal complaints were unclear as a result. A female lobbyist accused Cornish of a long-term pattern of unwanted sexual advances, and a female candidate for office accused Schoen of grabbing her buttocks at a political function. Additionally, Schoen sent a female staffer an image of male genitalia, his attorney has confirmed. In each of the cases, no formal complaint was ever made in either chamber until the women came forward in the media.

"It's clear the current mechanisms to address this behavior aren't sufficient to ensure legislators, staff, lobbyists and others can carry out their duties in an environment free from harmful behaviors," Lesch said in a statement. "No one should come to the Capitol fearing potential harassment."

Highlights: outside investigations

Here are the highlights of the proposed policy changes, which Lesch and O'Neill said they will introduce when the Legislature returns to business Feb. 20:

• Anyone can bring a complaint against a House member to the leader of either party's caucus.

• Leaders must bring the complaint to the House Ethics Committee within seven days, and the committee must hold a closed-door probable cause hearing within 30 days.

• An outside lawyer or consultant will be hired to make a preliminary report.

• A contested hearing — if the accused disputes the merits — must happen within 60 days. That would be public.

• The committee must make a decision within 90 days of the original complaint.

O'Neill emphasized that the rights of the accused will not be trodden.

She said the goal is "strengthening due process for those accused so justice is served for all involved. The last thing I want to see is a false accusation of sexual harassment becoming a political weapon. False accusations just create a toxic environment for those of us who have suffered real and serious sexual harassment to tell our stories and be believed."

Senate could do similar

For the Senate's part, Gazelka has publicly said that body should bolster its own rules.

A spokesman Monday said Lesch and O'Neill might have come out quicker with a written proposal, but the Senate isn't far behind.

"Senator Gazelka has said that we want to take this opportunity in the spotlight to look at ways we can improve our policy," spokesman Bill Walsh said Monday. "He looked at the House proposal and liked some of the things he saw in it."