Adviser urges urgent reform of Iowa Statehouse sexual harassment policies

Former Iowa Senate President Mary Kramer tells lawmakers to 'take the matter seriously'

Mary Kramer, former Iowa senator
Mary Kramer, former Iowa senator

DES MOINES — A former state senator with human relations expertise issued recommendations Friday to help legislators better address complaints of sexual harassment at the Statehouse in the wake of a $1.75 million sexual harassment settlement with a former Senate GOP staffer.

Mary Kramer, who previously served as the Iowa Senate’s president, provided a framework for creating and maintaining a safe, respectful and professional workplace in the Iowa Senate after being enlisted last fall by Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, to conduct an internal review.

“It behooves the Iowa Legislature to take the matter seriously and to act quickly,” Kramer said in a letter made public Friday. “While a review of the overall policies and procedures regarding employment and engagement is appropriate, the issue of harassment is clearly urgent and compelling.

“As of now, there is nothing that has changed to prevent additional inappropriate behavior and ensuing problems. It is my hope these policies will be reviewed, edited and adopted immediately,” Kramer added.

Workplace rules became an issue at the Statehouse amid a $1.75 million judgment paid last year to settle a lawsuit brought by Kirsten Anderson, a former Senate Republican caucus staff communications director who asserted she was fired in 2013 hours after complaining of sexual harassment.

Kramer said she was dismayed by the allegations and concluded there was a need for “culture reform” in the Iowa Senate in accepting Dix’s invitation to serve as an unpaid adviser.

Anderson, in an interview Friday, applauded Kramer’s recommendations as a “great starting point.” But she said the test now will be how much of the report will be implemented and how swiftly the changes are put in place.

“The track record is not good on moving swiftly on an issue like this and I’m proof of that,” said Anderson, who noted more than four years had passed since she complained about a “toxic” work environment in the GOP caucus and brought a successful challenge.

Anderson, who plans to participate Saturday in a protest near Dix’s Shell Rock home over what organizers say are GOP attacks on working families, said she was optimistic about the prospects but wanted to see more protections for high school students who work as legislative pages and more shields against retaliation for employees.

“I appreciate the spirit and intent of this report. I do think, however, that it lacked the needed specifics and a path moving forward,” Anderson said. “I think more emphasis could have been put on the retaliation portion of it. I mean that’s huge.

“People are very fearful of the retaliation piece and when you don’t offer specifics or a safer path on reporting, nobody wants to go through what I went through — because it’s absolutely horrible and they want to keep their livelihoods.”

Earlier this week, Republicans who run the Legislature announced that Kate Murphy of Ankeny will begin Jan. 22 as director of human resources. Murphy, a senior human resources professional and a certified public manager, has worked as an administrator in the Iowa Department of Transportation since 2006.

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Murphy will help legislative branch officials take “a fresh look” at policies and procedures on sexual harassment and serve as a resource if someone is experiencing problems in the Statehouse work environment.

This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke about sexual harassment in her Condition of the State speech, urging an end to its “destructive force.”

“It must stop,” she said, adding praise for women who have found courage to speak out about the “stain on our culture.”

In her letter, Kramer said for any policy to work there must be a shared goal involving legislators of both parties, legislative staff, lobbyist and media that is publicly articulated at the beginning of each legislative session.

All legislative branch employees and elected officials would be required to receive training on what constitutes inappropriate behavior and acknowledge in writing that they understand.

Kramer also recommended that legislative policies and procedures on inappropriate behavior have “a clear path” for filing complaints — not limited to employees — with assurance they will be investigated in a fair and impartial manner without retaliation.

“This requires the establishment of a formal complaint process that guarantees a fair and impartial investigation, that assures confidentiality with explicit prohibition of retaliation,” she wrote.

Where complaints of harassment are founded, employees would be subject to discipline up to and including termination. Senators who are named would be subject to a formal complaint filed with the Ethics Committee. Kramer recommended the committee immediately clarify its current processes for filing and handling ethics complaints.

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