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Speaker aims to encourage reporting of sexual harassment

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published March 08. 2013 4:00AM
Human rights commission spokesman recalls no complaints against New London's Hewett

Hartford - While there are a number of ways for General Assembly interns, legislative aides and legislators to report sexual harassment, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, has said he has heard the procedures do not encourage reporting.

So Sharkey's spokesman Gabe Rosenberg said Thursday that the House Democratic caucus is taking steps to put together a procedure that will make it easier people to come forward.

The new procedure will give Democratic House legislators, staff and members of the public the opportunity to report Democratic House legislators' behaviors, Sharkey said on Wednesday.

It was a Feb. 20 remark by state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, that has spurred the change. That's when Hewett told a 17-year-old girl who appeared before the Appropriations Committee in support of funding for the Connecticut Science Center, "If you're bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here."

Hewett made the comment after the girl said her time at the science center had helped her get over her shyness and fear of snakes. After hearing an audio recording of the hearing, Sharkey stripped Hewett of his deputy speaker title.

It was a lobbyist who reported the comment to Sharkey, Rosenberg said on Thursday. After the incident, Sharkey said, all Democratic House legislators, except for freshmen and sophomores, were required to a sexual harassment training refresher course. Since then, state Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, has said that the Internship Committee did not assign Hewett female interns because of his history of bad behavior.

According to Jim Tamburro, spokesperson for the Office of Legislative Management, a sexual harassment complaint has never been filed against Hewett. In fact, no sexual harassment complaints had been filed against any state legislators during the past two years, he said.

Jim O'Neill, spokesman for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, said the agency's former database is broken and the current database only goes back two years. The commission has paper copies of case files, which go back five years but it is not possible to go through them, he said, adding he had no recollection of any complaint against Hewett.

The CHRO's freedom of information officer Charles Perry wrote in a letter that he was unable to confirm, after a thorough review of the commission's database, whether any complaints against Hewett had been filed.

The Day has now made Freedom of Information requests to various agencies seeking complaints against Hewett.

Kathleen Holgerson, the director of the University of Connecticut's Women Center, said she and her staff have given sexual harassment training to interns at the state Capitol since at least 2010. She said that during the training, interns are told how to report sexual harassment.

But it's difficult for someone in a subordinate position to report sexual harassment, she said, adding there is still a stigma attached to doing so.

"People are impacted by how they are going to be perceived. 'Am I going to be supported or seen as a trouble maker?'" she said.

Art Forst, the former program director of the Legislative Internship Program, said he didn't remember any complaints about Hewett's behavior. He left the position three years ago and was in charge of it for 10 years.

"I had 900 interns (over 10 years). I never really had a problem," Forst said. "I kept holding my breath, waiting, but it just never seemed to happen … we didn't really have a problem in that area at all."

He said he didn't ever remember receiving a complaint or writing a complaint down. He also did not recall Hewett not being allowed to have female interns.

He said that if there were a problem with a legislator, an intern might have gone to a campus director or liaison to the internship program, he said.

Tamburro said interns could talk to someone at the office but, "We don't really get involved with interns."

Instead, interns likely would go to their internship directors and or to the caucus who would then speak to the legislator, Tamburro said.

Anyone could report an incident to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, he said.

"It's basically a place you go if you feel you are not getting the results you need in your organization," he said.

O'Neill said that interns and others who have sexual harassment complaints "should" file a complaint with the CHRO, which covers sexual harassment in the workplace, housing and public accommodation.

j.somers@theday.com

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