Staff Editorial

Too much the public doesn't know about harassment cases

The west side of the Iowa Capitol is seen reflected in the windows of the Henry A. Wallace Building situated on the northwest corner of East Ninth Street (E. 9th St.) and Grand Avenue (Grand Ave.) in Des Moines. (Gazette Archives)
The west side of the Iowa Capitol is seen reflected in the windows of the Henry A. Wallace Building situated on the northwest corner of East Ninth Street (E. 9th St.) and Grand Avenue (Grand Ave.) in Des Moines. (Gazette Archives)

Iowans are starting to get a clearer idea of just how many state employees have been accused of harassment.

Since 2016, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services has logged at least 116 harassment complaints. Seven of those were determined to be founded, including five cases of sexual harassment, according to a letter between department directors.

The letter was written in January following a request from state Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, for data about sexual harassment claims, but it was initially deemed by state lawyers to be confidential.

The Attorney General’s Office changed course last week, correctly concluding aggregate data does not jeopardize victims’ or employees’ privacy.

Sexual harassment among state employees is an increasingly pertinent issue in light of several expensive settlements the state has paid in the last two years.

Just this week, the Iowa Appeal Board approved settlements totaling nearly $3 million related to harassment or discrimination cases in the prison system and at Iowa State University.

Unfortunately, the new disclosure raises at least as many questions as it answers. State administrators note they have investigated harassment complaints in executive branch agencies since 2016, but some agencies may have conducted additional investigations about which the Department of Administrative Services does not have any records.

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So older complaints, and those originating from the judicial or legislative branches or from local governments, are not accounted for in the newly released documents. Additionally, state officials reported they don’t know how much the state has paid in settlements to victims of harassment, or to private firms for legal fees.

In other words, the public still does not fully understand how widespread, or how costly, the government’s harassment crisis is.

Iowans are poorly served by politicians’ and bureaucrats’ inclination to conceal information about misconduct by their colleagues. Instead, that habit helps to instill “a culture of secrecy in state government that leaves taxpayers at risk,” as Nielsen told The Gazette last week.

It is unacceptable that millions of taxpayer dollars are being used to compensate for the misdeeds of a few bad actors.

At the very least, Iowans deserve a transparent and methodical accounting of those payments.

Only when citizens and policymakers have complete and accurate information about the breadth of this issue will we be able to devise stronger systems to prevent and respond to harassment in public workplaces. State coffers, not to mention our moral standing, demand as much.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Updated Thursday, March 3: A previous version of this editorial reported a settlement at Iowa State University involved harassment. In fact, it was a sex discrimination claim.

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