Iowa Senate enhances sexual harassment policy

Changes aimed at reforming 'culture'

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate adopted an enhanced harassment prevention policy Tuesday and updated its code of ethics to establish “clear, legally sound” guidelines to resolve future complaints in the wake of a $1.75 million sexual harassment settlement with a former Senate GOP staffer.

“This is one of several steps that the Senate will take to address workplace issues,” said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who floor-managed a resolution passed on a voice vote to amend the Senate code of ethics.

The provisions are intended to make the Iowa Senate “a safe and welcoming place to work,” he said.

Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said the changes were made to establish a “clear understanding” of what constitutes harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation and to make sure that “everybody understands the process” for addressing complaints when they arise.

“These changes make the policy more transparent and easier for individuals working in and around the Senate to understand,” Schneider said. “It outlines a clear process for investigating complaints against senators, staff and other stakeholders in and around the Senate.”

The enhanced policy specifically prohibits retaliation in response to complaints, creates an opportunity for complainants to request that an investigation be conducted by an external investigator, establishes training requirements for both leadership and managers, staff, other employees and interns, and requires an annual review of the policy to ensure that the Senate is following best practices for both the public and the private sector, he said.

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.

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines called Tuesday’s developments a “good first step” in addressing concerns raised by Andersen’s harassment lawsuit that prompted an internal review and recommendations by Mary Kramer, who previously served as the Iowa Senate’s president and who called for “culture reform” in the legislative chamber.

“The Iowa Senate received a black eye because of the Kirsten Anderson case, the findings of an ‘internal review’ and related media coverage,” Petersen told reporters. “Senators are finally taking steps today to ensure the Iowa Senate will become a safe and healthy environment.

“I’m hopeful that this will be a first step in the right direction to changing the culture and making the Iowa Senate a more safe and welcoming place for people to work,” she added.

Changes already have taken place in the Senate. The GOP majority leader who fired Anderson last month resigned his Senate seat after online photos and video showed him kissing a lobbyist, Also, a GOP senator’s clerk was fired April 3 after a harassment complaint against him.

Senate Republican leaders say the legislative branch’s recently hired human resources director will help keep personnel policies updated and avoid similar situations in the future.

“All senators and staff have a high obligation to support and enforce these new policies and to continue to strengthen the Senate’s harassment prevention policies and the Code of Ethics,” Petersen said. “Otherwise, we are doing a disservice to Iowans.”

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