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Legislators surprised sexual harassment reporting policy does not cover interns

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published April 01. 2013 4:00AM
Issue under scrutiny after Hewett remark

Hartford - After evaluating the legislature's policies in the wake of state Rep. Ernest Hewett's controversial remarks to a teenager testifying before a legislative committee, party leaders in the General Assembly have realized they have no procedure for interns to report sexual harassment.

"I was surprised in that I assumed the policy that covered staff would also cover interns," House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said Friday. "I want to make sure that it does."

Legislative leaders have spoken about having the Internship Committee review the sexual harassment policy used by the four caucuses - House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. The caucuses currently use the policy from the Office of Legislative Management, a nonpartisan organization that provides them with administrative and operational support.

However, because interns are unpaid and technically not employees, they are not covered under Legislative Management's policy.

Sharkey said he is also using a law firm retained by Legislative Management to review the current policy in order to create a more robust internal policy for the House Democrats, which other caucuses might use.

"Hewett brought to light a lot of concerns that folks have had for some time about the sexual harassment policy, how it gets carried out," Sharkey said.

Sharkey said some legislators have told him there is a concern that it is not worth even raising a complaint because if one is made, nothing will be done about it.

"If legislators are telling me that, I get concerned with staff people since they are at the pleasure of the speaker," Sharkey said.

Legislative Management's policy provides an informal complaint process in which the complaint may be made verbally to the person causing the problem, to the office director, or to the appointing authority.

The policy also provides a formal complaint process in which the complaint is written down and the type of corrective action the employee requests is recorded. A complaint may also be made directly to the caucus, to legislative management or to both, said Jim Tamburro, spokesperson for the Office of Legislative Management.

No existing policy

The Internship Committee, which has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and is co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat, does not have its own written sexual harassment policy for interns.

"We are going to get them (Internship Committee members) together and say this is what we have discovered and what we would like you to work on," House Republican Leader, Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, said on Friday.

The leaders were all surprised and thought the intern program was operating under Legislative Management's policy, said Senate Minority Leader, John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

"As of now, there is no policy for interns," said co-chairman of the Internship Committee and state Rep. Chris Davis, R-Broad Brook. "Certainly, clarification needs to be done."

Steve Marcelynas, the program director for the Legislative Intern Program, said he has received no formal or informal sexual harassment complaints from interns since 2010, when he began working there. Art Forst, the former director who was in that position for 10 years, said he didn't remember receiving a single complaint or writing a complaint down in his time there.

"But whether there is an issue or not, there has to be a procedure in place, and that is what we are all determined to do," Cafero said.

The director of the University of Connecticut's Women's Center, Kathleen Holgerson, said her organization gives sexual harassment training to the interns and had not been aware there was no written policy.

"When anybody is in crisis, the ability to keep information in their head is difficult," Holgerson said last week. "If you have it in a place, where people can access it on their own terms, it gives folks time to figure out what happened … help make decisions on whether to file a complaint or address it anymore."

The training is a step in the right direction, she said. But people often forget the information when they walk out the door, and they might not pay attention until something happens.

"The more accessible, the better off you are," Holgerson said.

A need for a change

The fact that interns are not covered by a sexual harassment policy was brought to Sharkey's attention not long after he indicated that an internal sexual harassment reporting policy was needed for the House Democrats.

Sharkey got the impression that the legislature needed a better policy after a meeting with women of the Democratic House caucus. It was a meeting Hewett was also supposed to attend but didn't. The meeting was scheduled to address a controversial comment he had made to a teenager during a legislative committee hearing in February.

A teen ambassador for the Connecticut Science Center who was advocating for funding for the center said the center had helped her overcome her shyness and fear of snakes.

Hewett said, "If you're bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here."

The remark caused Sharkey to call for more sexual harassment training for House Democrats and a new sexual harassment policy for House Democrats. He also stripped Hewett of his deputy speaker title.

Sharkey said that he cannot dictate a sexual harassment policy to other caucuses. But the other leaders have said they will be looking at his policy, and some might contribute to it.

"We certainly think it makes sense to review (the policy)," said Adam Joseph, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn. "We might incorporate it into ours."

Cafero said he anticipated working together to have a consistent sexual harassment policy for everyone working in the General Assembly, whether they are interns, the maintenance crew or nonpartisan staff.

McKinney said he thought Legislative Management's policy could be improved and has asked his staff to come up with some recommendations. For example, right now the policy encourages someone to report to the chief of staff within the caucus, he said.

But in the case of the Senate Republicans, that person happens to be a man. McKinney's staff has recommended there be both a male and a female available to those wishing to make a sexual harassment complaint, he said.

When asked whether it was OK for sexual harassment complaints to be made only verbally, he said it would depend on what experts say.

"If experts tell me verbal confrontation is easier and more likely to bring a complaint, then we should keep it," McKinney said.

Sharkey said he would also wait to see what the personnel law firm recommends with regard to verbal versus written complaints as well as specific consequences for someone who sexually harasses someone else.

But if the caucus or Legislative Management doesn't write down a complaint, as Legislative Management's policy allows, there would not be a record.

Verbal complaints:
no paper trail

The Day filed Freedom of Information requests for any sexual harassment complaints made against any state legislator in the past five years. Legislative Management and each of the four caucuses reported that there have been no written complaints, but that doesn't establish conclusively that there have been no verbal complaints.

Sometimes, legislative aides are moved from one legislator to the next because they don't like working with a particular legislator, don't have the right chemistry with a legislator or feel "uncomfortable" with a legislator, said Dawn Marzik, senior legislative assistant for the Democratic House caucus, who has worked for the caucus for 24 years.

Marzik said she could not comment on whether a legislative aide formerly under her supervision had ever made a sexual harassment complaint. But Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, raised some suspicion about Hewett's past behavior by saying he was not assigned female interns because of a "history of bad behavior."

Hewett had told The Hartford Courant that he does not work with female interns because "that keeps me good and that keeps everybody else good."

Marzik, who also serves as the intern supervisor for the Democratic House caucus, said Hewett was never assigned a female intern in part because he didn't have the same chemistry with women as he did with men.

"I just think that it was obvious it wasn't the same chemistry or comfort level," Marzik said.

Sharkey said the ultimate goal is to create an environment where anyone who feels threatened or uncomfortable feels secure making a complaint and confident that it will be followed up, Sharkey said.

"While we had a policy on paper, it was not being carried out as aggressively as it could be," Sharkey said.

j.somers@theday.com

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