IOWA CITY — At the same time Friday afternoon the Iowa governor was ordering an investigation of a fired agency head accused of ongoing sexual harassment, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst was meeting with rape victim advocates in Iowa City and urging sexual violence accountability at the highest level.
“I think everybody should be held accountable,” Ernst said. “When allegations come up, we need to take those allegations seriously, and then they need to go through due process, regardless of your status, where you are, where you serve. We’ve seen this a lot in the Senate and in the House in recent months with sexual harassment issues and secret payouts.”
Ernst made her comments during and after a meeting with representatives from the University of Iowa-based Rape Victim Advocacy Program, which was dealt a major blow last year when lawmakers nixed funding for its sexual assault hotline.
That amounted to 41 percent of the program’s government support and forced it to cut 15 staffers.
Adam Robinson, the program’s executive director, called the cut “devastating” and “heartbreaking,” but reported his organization managed to keep the hotline open, thanks — in large part — to help from volunteers.
In the 2017 budget year, 11,181 volunteer hours saved the program $281,862 in staff costs.
But Robinson and other program advocates on Friday asked Ernst for her advocacy at the federal and state level for improved funding and legislative support. And she gave her word.
“Funding is very tight, I understand that, but we also need to make sure that we’re finding a way to support really important organizations,” Ernst said.
At the same time Ernst was making her comments, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds was reversing her earlier resistance to further investigate sexual harassment reports against former Iowa Finance Authority Executive Director David Jamison by ordering an independent review.
Ernst urged the use of investigations to shift the culture around sexual misconduct.
“We need to make sure if allegations come up, that they are being thoroughly investigated and dealt with,” she said.
She expressed particular frustration with Congress’ inaction following the conviction of Larry Nassar, the former USA gymnastics team doctor and Michigan State University physician sentenced to prison earlier this year following his molestation of hundreds of young women and men.
Ernst said she has been pushing for a joint select committee to investigate those on the U.S. Olympic Committee, chartered through Congress, who knew about the abuses and looked the other way. But she’s gotten significant pushback, specifically from committees of the judiciary and commerce.
“They want to have control over this,” she said. “But it has really gone on far too long. We should have had committee meetings months ago.”
The delay, Ernst said, has amounted to a lost opportunity “to do something, to find out what went wrong and really hold people accountable.
“I don’t think at this point they will find anybody accountable,” she said. “And I feel people that are following this, especially a lot of the survivors … they will say, ‘Wow, people, if they’re powerful, they can get away with it.’ And I just think it’s a sad story about athletics and the way we respond to it here in the United States.”
In broader terms, Ernst said she’s trying to raise awareness around issues of sexual assault, signing a letter this week urging leadership to move forward with legislation.
“Why would we not make sure that members of the Senate or members of the Congress take the same training that their employees are required to take?” she said. “And if issues of sexual harassment or assault do happen in those offices, those survivors should have recourse. They should have better ways of reporting and holding somebody accountable.”
But change is slow-coming.
“We’re just working in a system that is so used to being above everyone else,” she said. “We’ve got to break that.”
On other issues, Ernst said she needs to see the text of a bill protecting special counsel Robert Mueller, in his investigation of possible Russian collusion, before deciding whether she supports it.
“But I honest to goodness don’t think that the president is going to let Mueller go,” she said. “I think he would be setting himself up for an all-out pushback by Congress. And I would encourage him not to do that.”
As for Scott Pruitt’s future as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ernst said his behavior — if verified — warrants action.
“He deserves the pushback if he has misspent dollars,” she said. “If he has acted inappropriately with funding issues, then he needs to be held accountable.”
Whether or not he should be replaced, Ernst said, “that’s up to the president to decide.”
“I have my own opinions,” she said. “But I think if there are misspent dollars, we need to find that, we need to figure out how that’s handled through Congress, and we need to have that oversight.”
“But,” she said, “I think the tolerance level is getting pretty low between the president and some of the agency officials. I think he’s disappointed.”
In regard to Iowa farmers, Ernst said she was “disappointed” but remains hopeful about possible trade tariffs targeting China.
“We are very close to having NAFTA done, and if we can get NAFTA done, then that kind of buoys the (farm) market a little bit,” she said.
“We’ve also talked about opening up other markets. … I am more optimistic now than I was probably two months ago.”
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