Bill would shield taxpayers from workplace bias payouts

Measure calls for AG to recoup money from offending state employee

Exterior view of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
Exterior view of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. (Steve Pope/Freelance)

DES MOINES — Future legal settlements over discriminatory employment practices by state employees or officials still would be paid by the state, but the Iowa Attorney General would be directed to recover that taxpayer money from the offender under a Senate bill proposed Wednesday.

State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, was joined by 19 other Democrats and Ocheyedan independent Sen. David Johnson in filling legislation in the wake of a $1.75 million sexual harassment settlement last year with a former Senate GOP staffer.

“Taxpayers got sucker-punched into having to pay for this,” Bowman said after introducing legislation its sponsors said would ensure that an offending state employee — not taxpayers — would be financially responsible for illegal workplace behavior.

Workplace rules became an issue at the Statehouse after the payment was made last year to settle a lawsuit brought by Kirsten Anderson, a former Senate Republican caucus staff communications director. She asserted she was fired in 2013 hours after complaining of sexual harassment on the job.

A former Senate president was enlisted to make recommendations on creating and maintaining a respectful and professional workplace at the Statehouse going forward, but Bowman said more is needed.

“What took place was just basically wrong,” he said. “Iowans are disgusted by the harassment, discrimination and retaliation against Kirsten Anderson and other legislative staff by some Republican senators and staff members. ... Especially in a tight budget year, this money should be put toward our kids’ education, job training programs or mental health care.”

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he had not seen the bill’s language so he wanted to reserve comment until he had read it.

“I know that people have suggested that and I certainly would be willing to look at that,” Whitver told reporters. “We’re going through the whole review process and, if that’s a policy we want to have going forward as a state, we should have that conversation.”

Under current law, Bowman said, Iowa taxpayers must pay for such awards, and there’s no recourse for state officials to recoup that money from offending state employees. The proposed legislation would allow the plaintiff to receive an award from the state, but would require the Iowa Attorney General to recover the amount of the award from the offender.

The legislation applies to state employment cases, which includes hostile work environment cases involving sexual harassment, race, religion, age or disability, he said.

“This proposed legislation is part of the national conversation about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace,” Bowman said. “We must send a message to legislators and other state employees who harass their co-workers or subordinates that their conduct will not be tolerated and that they will be held responsible for their illegal behavior.”

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