Government

Iowa senator accused of sexual misconduct argues Senate ethics rules don't apply to acts before he was elected

State Senator Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, 2017 Iowa Legislature
State Senator Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, 2017 Iowa Legislature

CEDAR RAPIDS — It would be “fundamentally unfair” to hold Sen. Nate Boulton to the Senate’s code of conduct for actions that allegedly occurred before he was elected, according to his response to an accusation of sexual misconduct.

The Des Moines Democrat’s defense, filed Monday with the Secretary of the Senate, also cites observations by a witness who said the woman who accused Boulton of groping was being “overly flirtatious.”

Boulton has been accused by Sharon Wegner, who like Boulton also is a Des Moines lawyer, of pursuing her in a bar in 2015 and repeatedly grabbing her buttocks without her consent.

She is one of three women — all lawyers and two of them law school classmates of Boulton — who said he inappropriately had accosted them years ago. None of the situations occurred in workplace settings.

The incident Wegner alleges occurred well over a year before Boulton was elected to the state Senate.

In her complaint, Wegner asked the Senate Ethics Committee to invoke a rule requiring senators to adhere to the Senate Code of Ethics for up to three years before being elected.

Boulton’s attorney, Paige Fiedler of Johnston, argued that some lawmakers may not be contemplating running for office three years before being elected.

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“It is axiomatic that members of an organization are not bound by its rules and regulations before the time they become members,” Fiedler wrote in the response. “It is unclear how they could possibly be held to follow rules of an organization of which they are not a part.”

She pointed out that the Senate Code of Ethics applies only to “members of the Senate.”

The complaint now goes to the Senate Ethics Committee, according to Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson. It must hold a public meeting and review the filings before choosing a course of action.

The committee may notify the complainant that no further action will be take unless more information is produced. The second option is to dismiss the complaint.

If the committee determines the complaint has merit, it may admonish Boulton for his conduct, issue a cease-and-desist order, or recommend to the Senate that he be censured or reprimanded.

Finally, the committee of three Democrats and three Republicans could request that the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court appoint an independent special counsel to investigate the complaint and report the findings to the committee.

In Boulton’s defense, Fiedler said he has no memory of engaging into the kind of behavior Wegner suggested. However, he was intoxicated and “cannot say with absolute certainty that he never touched Ms. Wegner.”

Wegner was acquainted with Boulton and his wife, including as Facebook friends.

Sarah Baumgartner, a lawyer in the same firm as Boulton, was at the cocktail reception where the alleged groping occurred. She describes Wegner as acting in a “flirtatious manner,” “awkwardly touching his arm” and, while talking to him, “proceeded to lean into Nate.”

Boulton did not reciprocate Wegner’s advances, Baumgartner said.

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According to Fielder, Boulton and Wegner continued to communicate after the alleged incident and Wegner sought a meeting with him to discuss worker compensation issues.

Their communications continued throughout his campaign and after he took office in January 2017.

Boulton “deeply regrets whatever it was that happened” even though he does not believe he assaulted Wegner. However, Fiedler wrote that he recognizes that by drinking too much, “he put himself in a position where he is unable to say for sure.”

“It is both fortunate and unfortunate that we must choose our political leaders among imperfect human beings,” she wrote.

Boulton, who has not yielded to calls from Senate Democratic leadership to resign, indicted he intends to serve the two remaining years of his term. Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, did not assign him to any committees pending the outcome of the ethics investigation.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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