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Harassment claims target 4 Missouri lawmakers

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri House has dealt with six formal sexual harassment complaints over the past two years, including four that involved lawmakers and that cost more than $22,000 in external legal fees to investigate, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

That’s twice as many complaints as the House received in the nearly two years before it strengthened its sexual harassment policies in November 2015. But it’s impossible to know whether alleged sexual harassment instances actually have increased or whether lawmakers and staff simply feel more comfortable reporting allegations.

The records do not contain the names of the lawmakers or the specific reasons why no action was taken against them.

House Speaker Todd Richardson has spearheaded the House’s new sexual harassment policies since taking over in May 2015 for Speaker John Diehl Jr., who resigned while admitting to sending sexually suggestive text messages to a college student serving as a House intern.

“My hope is that what you’re seeing now is a quicker resolution to the kind of issues that — absent a policy that requires reporting and quick investigation — would have gone unresolved,” Richardson said.

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The Senate said it had no records of any complaints other than an allegation that Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota had sexually harassed an intern in 2015. Records show that the state spent about $25,500 for private attorneys to investigate the claim against LeVota. He denied the allegation but announced his resignation shortly after the investigative report was publicly released in July 2015.

The Missouri House and Senate both updated their sexual harassment policies before the growth of the #MeToo movement last fall, when numerous women across the country went public with claims of sexual harassment against prominent people in politics, entertainment and the media.

Since then, legislative chambers in a majority of states have revised or are considering changes to their sexual harassment policies, according to an AP review .

The names of the Missouri House members involved in the sexual harassment complaints were kept confidential in the documents provided to the AP under the state’s open-records law. But two lawmakers at odds in one of the cases confirmed their involvement to the AP, and both expressed frustration with how it was resolved.

“The policies that are put in place in the House are totally ineffective,” Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said in a tearful interview with the AP. She recalled feeling “like you’re a nobody” when her complaint against Democratic Rep. Joshua Peters was quietly dismissed last year.

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Chappelle-Nadal had gone public in January 2017 with allegations that Peters had grabbed her in a “forceful embrace” and called her “boo” and a derogatory name. Peters said at the time that the accusations were “completely and categorically false.”

The House sexual harassment policy requires complaints involving lawmakers to be investigated by private attorneys who submit their findings to the House Ethics Committee, a panel of five Republican and five Democratic representatives. Complaints involving staff are handled internally.

Records of a closed-session February 2017 meeting show the House Ethics Committee voted to dismiss a complaint on the condition of the lawmaker in question meeting with the chair and vice chair and being “warned that any further complaints of inappropriate language or behavior will be dealt with more severely.”

Peters told the AP that he was the lawmaker admonished to behave and he acknowledged that he had cursed at Chappelle-Nadal. But he expressed frustration that he never received anything in writing declaring that he had been cleared of the sexual harassment allegation.

“There needs to be transparency in these particular situations when it comes to the final results,” Peters said.

Richardson told the AP that providing written resolutions of cases to the parties involved is a suggestion worth considering. But he was reluctant to publicly release documents about the investigations.

The House policy is designed “to make sure that we’re protecting the privacy and the confidentiality of both the person making the complaint and the accused,” he said.

Invoices show that the House also hired outside lawyers to investigate two sexual harassment complaints in early 2016 and one additional complaint in early 2017 while the Legislature was in session.

Minutes show that the House Ethics Committee met in a closed session in March 2016 but do not indicate how any complaints were resolved. Records show that the committee dismissed a compliant in March 2017. Another harassment complaint was dismissed Jan. 4, though the lack of invoices for private attorneys suggests that particular complaint may not have been of a sexual nature.

Some of the sexual harassment complaints involving lawmakers have been investigated by the St. Louis law firm McMahon Berger, which the House also hired to lead sexual harassment training sessions. All House members and staff were required to participate in a 90-minute session in January that discussed specific examples of potentially inappropriate behavior, including sexual jokes, hugs or comments about personal photos on social media.

The Missouri Senate only requires training once when people start their jobs.

The Associated Press has correct this story to reflect the correct date of Chappelle-Nadal’s complaint.

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