On Beacon Hill, Female Reps Press Action In Wake Of Sexual Harassment Report

Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Describing themselves as "saddened and angered," the co-chairs of the Women's Caucus Sexual Assault Working Group are calling for immediate implementation of a five-step action plan that includes mandatory sexual harassment training for all state employees and an anonymous survey to gauge the level of harassment within the State House, following accusations about some legislators' behavior.

"As female legislators, we have heard the harassment stories of female staff and female interns who work in the State House. It is disturbing to learn that outside organizations must provide education to staff and interns on what legislators and aides to avoid. No one should feel unsafe walking through these halls," co-chairs Reps. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield wrote in a statement released over the weekend.

The legislators also called for a memo to all individuals employed by the Legislature on the sexual harassment policy and reporting procedures with a signature required to acknowledge understanding of consequences; a memo to registered lobbyists and lobbying firms regarding a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment; and creation of a task force to study the artwork in the State House "to ensure that it is reflective of the people of Massachusetts."

The House on Friday approved an order requiring a comprehensive review of the Massachusetts House's sexual harassment policies, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo saying the body may have failed in its endeavor to create a positive work environment for all.

The order was approved hours after the Boston Globe's Yvonne Abraham reported about a "climate of harassment and sexual misconduct" at the State House, based on anonymous interviews with a dozen women who worked in and around the building over the past two decades.

"Aides, lobbyists, activists and legislators told of situations where they were propositioned by men, including lawmakers, who could make or break their careers; where those men pressed up against them, touched their legs, massaged their shoulders, tried to kiss them, grabbed their behinds, chased them around offices, or demanded sex," Abraham reported, adding that some of the alleged perpetrators "are still fixtures on Beacon Hill."

DeLeo said the House has tried to create a "positive work environment" for everyone.

"I want to assure all members, employees and visitors to the House of Representatives that the House of Representatives has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any form and has and will continue to thoroughly investigate any reported incident of harassment and take decisive and appropriate action to discipline offenders and to protect victims," DeLeo said on Friday.

Ehrlich and Farley-Bouvier said they were pleased DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg had taken a "strong stand against this behavior," but said additional steps are necessary.

"In the male-dominated field of politics it is especially important that everyone feels safe from harassment and inappropriate use of power. We have further steps that should be taken to make the Massachusetts State House a model workplace for all," Ehrlich and Farley-Bouvier said.

With 51 women and 145 men currently in office, women account for about a quarter of the Legislature's membership. There are 12 women in the 40-seat Senate, and 39 in the 160-seat House.

The issue of sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, again became a national conversation earlier this month after more than a dozen women accused film executive Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment.

Women in the Globe column detailed various incidents, including one where House lawmakers viewed pornography on a cellphone in the chamber, and another in which a representative who is no longer in office crudely told a Senate aide he wanted to have sex with her.

Under DeLeo's order, House chief legal counsel James Kennedy has until March 1, 2018, to report on House policies and recommend updates "to instill a culture of accountability focused on ensuring a professional and safe working environment for all members, officers, employees and guests of the House."

The order instructs House attorneys to "act independently" of lawmakers, officers and employees of the House in their review and authorizes them to retain outside legal experts and consultants.

Speaking from the House floor Friday, DeLeo, who has led the House since 2009, said he was "infuriated and deeply disturbed" to hear of the women's allegations. He said he understood the desire to remain anonymous but said it was upsetting that women feared the consequences of reporting harassment.

Rep. Sarah Peake, a member of DeLeo's leadership team, said Friday that she has not experienced sexual harassment on Beacon Hill and that DeLeo has a record "of providing a fair and safe place to work."

"This is in the news these days. I think it's great that it's in the news," Peake said. "It is causing lots of women to search back through their memory banks, and say, 'Hey, maybe that incident that happened to me when I was a teenager and had a job at the ice cream shop and I laughed off at the time was really not laughable.'"

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who served in the House for a decade beginning in 2001, told the News Service Friday she feels "fortunate" to have not faced a circumstance like the ones described in the Globe column.

"This is a problem in society that needs to be elevated, and if it's by individuals coming forward to tell their stories so that we can all work together to make it a safer and healthier place for individuals, then we should do that," Polito said.

In her capacity as chair of the Governor's Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, Polito plans to join Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and Jane Doe Policy Director Maureen Gallagher on Monday to testify before the Joint Committee on Public Health during an informational hearing about domestic violence as a public health issue. That hearing starts at 11:45 a.m. in Rooms A-1 and A-2.



More from WBUR

Listen Live