Senate GOP sexual harassment report is very troubling

A portion of the Iowa Senate GOP's internal investigation report atop a picture of the Iowa Statehouse.
A portion of the Iowa Senate GOP's internal investigation report atop a picture of the Iowa Statehouse.

It is clear why Iowa Senate Republican leaders wanted to keep an internal investigation of sexual harassment claims secret. The rosy picture they attempted to paint of a better workplace environment is shattered.

Amid public outcry and at the urging of Gov. Kim Reynolds, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix performed another 180-degree turn in this harassment saga, which began when Kirsten Anderson, the Republican Caucus communication director, won a wrongful termination lawsuit. The case was settled in September for $1.75 million — taxpayer dollars from Iowa’s general fund.

The acknowledgment of guilt is all the more troublesome when paired with internal investigation findings, begrudgingly released by Dix today in the middle of the extended holiday.

We now know Dix’s assertions — that the Senate is no longer is plagued by sexual harassment, and that workers do not fear reporting bad behavior — are fiction.

“Several of the staff members interviewed indicated they possess a fear of retaliation, which is why they did not feel comfortable reporting any instances of harassment,” report authors noted. “Further, they would be unlikely to report any future incidents, should they arise due to this fear.”

To the credit of the investigators — Charlie Smithson, Senate secretary, and Mary Earnhardt, senior aide to Senate President Jack Whitver — they also note the Dix-ordered investigation “was a very delicate matter” involving “colleagues and subordinates,” which “may have had a chilling effect.”

I disagree with their belief that a third-party investigation would not be “productive.”

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Think about it. Smithson and Earnhardt acknowledge they were interviewing staff members, some of which are beholden to them for a livelihood. They admit “several” are fearful of retaliation for reporting bad behavior — a justified fear, given that a court of law found the communications director was fired inappropriately by Dix just hours after submitting a complaint of workplace sexual harassment.

It should not be surprising that the three-page report includes information such as “staff member declined to give any specifics” or “most staff members who mentioned this declined to give specific senators names or details.”

We know “many” employees in the Republican Caucus said “an environment” exists “on the Senate floor with senators making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences.”

This is information known to Iowa Senate GOP leaders since mid-August, based on the Aug. 15 date of the report — although only days ago, Dix told reporters he’d not read it.

Dix and Whitver said they will work with Mary Kramer to improve workplace culture. Kramer, a former GOP senator who left to serve as ambassador to Barbados and who has a background in human resources, was brought on this week as an unpaid adviser.

Unless Kramer’s first action is to demand an independent investigation, creating a barrier between Senate leaders with the ability to terminate employment and staff members who rely on their jobs, we shouldn’t be foolish enough to hope for any such results.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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