Iowa Senate Democrat on sexual harassment payout: Why should taxpayers fund lawmakers' bad behavior?

Party leader in talks with legislators in wake of sexual harassment payout

State Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines. (2017 Iowa Legislature)
State Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines. (2017 Iowa Legislature)

By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau

JOHNSTON — The top Democrat in the Iowa Senate said Wednesday her minority caucus is exploring whether legislation could be enacted to shield taxpayers from having to pay for the bad behavior of people in state government, such as a recent $1.75 million payout to settle sexual harassment findings.

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines said her members regularly are hearing complaints from constituents upset that tax dollars were used to settle an adverse jury verdict in a lawsuit brought by a former Republican Senate caucus employee, Kirsten Anderson, who said she was fired in 2013 after complaining about a “toxic” work environment.

“I don't think that there is a single Iowan out there that believes they should be paying the price for what happened in the Iowa Senate,” Petersen said while recording Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program.

Current practice has been that the state has paid to settle wrongful actions committed by government employees, public officials or others. But Petersen said recent situations at the federal and state levels involving secret settlements or other adverse judgments have triggered discussions about how such matters should be handled going forward.

She said she’s consulting with other lawmakers in hopes of finding a way to prevent taxpayers from shouldering future legal settlements for misconduct by legislators or their staffs.

“We don't have it mapped out yet. But what I can tell you is that there are conversations going on about ‘how should we address this so that Iowa taxpayers aren't strapped with the bill?’” Petersen said.

The Iowa Senate currently is made up of 28 Republicans, 20 Democrats and one independent with a special election slated next month to fill a vacant seat.

“We’re still having conversations to know if it’s even possible,” she told reporters afterward, “so stay tuned, that would be my answer.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, has indicated he intends yet this week to publicly release an internal GOP review that was undertaken in the wake of the Anderson sexual harassment settlement and to enlist a former Senate leader to advise him on workplace culture.

Petersen said she believes Anderson’s harassment case would never have resulted in litigation had Dix followed the rules in the Senate handbook and conducted an investigation four years ago.

She also questioned how much will be learned when details of the GOP review are made public, telling reporters the situation may give “new meaning to black Friday — it’ll be a report with a lot black-out on it, I suppose,” given that much of the proceedings have occurred under a cloak of secrecy.

“How did the process work? Who was involved? What were they looking for? What are the findings?” asked Petersen in lamenting how many senators have been “kept in the dark” about the review.

Asked about the culture at the Statehouse, Petersen said she has experienced inappropriate comments and incidents of harassment but declined to elaborate, saying “they pale in comparison to what Kirsten Anderson went through and I am hopeful that we can change the climate up there, not just for legislators but for everyone who works in that building.”

On other topics, Petersen:

• Said she thinks “there’s a good shot” the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor could be decided by convention given there is a large field of candidates and it takes at least 35 percent of the primary vote to become the general-election candidate.

• Expressed concern over prospects for a state GOP tax overhaul given Iowa’s current budget situation. “Right now, when we're not able to fund essential services, we have drastically underfunded our public education system, we have a health care system that is in crisis right now. I think that it would be very dangerous for our state to be looking at cutting even more taxes out of our budget situation.”

• Said Democrats “are in lockstep” over the idea of halting privately managed Medicaid and bringing the program back under state management. “When we went to a privatized program, it's making it harder for families to get the care they need and it's making it hard for Iowa providers to get paid — and we are losing infrastructure and it's becoming a dangerous situation in our state,” she said.

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