Reynolds backs "zero tolerance" for harassment

Calls Senate probe 'healthy' in wake of $2.2 million jury verdict

Then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at Iowa Women Lead Change Eastern Iowa Conference at the DoubleTree Hotel in Cedar Rap
Then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at Iowa Women Lead Change Eastern Iowa Conference at the DoubleTree Hotel in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. The event, which is sponsored by the IWLC, is in its tenth year and includes various tracks, breakout sessions and keynote speakers across two days. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds backed Republican Senate leaders Wednesday in the wake of a $2.2 million sexual harassment verdict against the state, but suggested it would be “healthy” to have an independent investigation to ensure state employees are adopting a “zero tolerance” policy for inappropriate behavior.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable,” Reynolds said in response to reporters’ questions at her weekly news conference.

In a July trial, former Senate GOP communications director Kirsten Anderson asserted that when she worked in the Statehouse years ago, there was a “toxic” work environment in which some senators remarked about women’s breasts and skirt lengths and teased women about their sex lives. She said she was fired just hours after she complained of sexual harassment.

Wednesday, the governor said she hopes a review of the “full scope” of information presented at the trial would be conducted. She pointed to the executive branch approach of enlisting “an outside person” to conduct an investigation and report findings as an appropriate way to handle workplace issues.

Reynolds said she was not aware of how Senate Republicans were conducting their internal probe, but told reporters, “I understand that (Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix) has also instituted a zero-tolerance policy, and the Senate is conducting an investigation into the full scope of what came out at the trial. I am appreciative of the steps that they are taking and I have faith in Sen. Dix that he will take the necessary steps and has taken the necessary steps to make sure that that’s not going to be tolerated in the workplace.”

Democrats have raised concerns that the Senate investigation is being conducted by the chamber’s secretary — who is hired by the GOP majority — although Anderson’s attorney has requested the court order an independent investigation.

Also Wednesday, Andy McGuire, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018, called it “just wrong” that taxpayers would be on the hook for misconduct within the Senate GOP caucus.

Dix announced the internal probe last week after a closed-door meeting in which majority GOP senators did not make any leadership or staff changes as a result of the trial outcome.

Anderson, who worked in the Iowa Senate for five years, told jurors she was fired in 2013 about seven hours after she complained to her boss about the lewd and sexist behavior she experienced there. Her assertions were backed up by others who also testified at trial.

Dix, who contended Anderson was fired for poor work performance, told reporters that things he learned from the trial “that I was not aware of” prompted the probe.

He also said there are post-jury verdict proceedings underway and senators would consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in deciding whether to appeal.

A few hours after Reynolds’ news conference, Dix issued a statement indicating that on the advice of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the secretary of the Senate had contacted the Iowa Department of Administrative Services “to begin the process of entering into a contractual relationship between the Iowa Senate and the department to provide human resources services to the Iowa Senate.”

“As I have stated previously, harassment of all types will not be tolerated in the Iowa Senate. It will be a safe working environment,” Dix said in his statement. “Action was immediately taken to investigate issues which arose during the recent trial and had not been investigated and that process is ongoing.”

State officials have been grappling with a likely budget shortfall due to shrinking revenue growth. Reynolds said her office is monitoring the situation daily and the $2.2 million damage award would be factored in if ultimately the judgment is assessed to the state’s general fund.

“If it’s an obligation, then it’s an obligation and so we’ll have to do what we have to do,” the governor said.

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