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Kansas Democrat Seeks Change In Harassment Investigations

Stephen Koranda
KPR/File photo

The Kansas Legislature should have independent attorneys investigate sexual harassment claims against its members, a Democratic leader proposed Thursday, promising he will be willing to strip committee assignments from lawmakers in his party who engage in misconduct.

Minority Leader Jim Ward also said that fellow House Democrats will undergo sexual harassment training during a December retreat.

Ward's proposal and public pledges came a day after the former chief of staff for his predecessor publicly aired allegations of misconduct. Abbie Hodgson, the former staffer, said a Democratic lawmaker once asked her for sex in 2015 and that female, college-student interns served as after-hour designated drivers for intoxicated lawmakers regularly in 2016.

The Legislature's policies call for staffers' complaints about sexual harassment by their lawmaker-bosses to be investigated by its legislative services office. The office's director is hired by legislative leaders.

Ward said he is proposing that legislative leaders instead hire an independent "compliance officer" when a complaint is lodged to investigate it and recommend a punishment if misconduct is found. The Wichita Democrat said he wants people to feel comfortable that they can lodge complaints and "retribution won't happen."

"I want the independence," Ward said. Later, he added, "I think sexual harassment is a widespread problem in communities, in workplaces across the country. That includes the Statehouse."

Republican leaders reacted cautiously to Ward's proposal. House Majority Leader Don Hineman, of Dighton, said he trusts the legislative services offices to handle investigations of sexual harassment.

And Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said: "The last thing we need is another level of bureaucracy."

The allegations of misconduct in Kansas came after California's state Senate hired a law firm to investigate what women described as a culture of sexual intimidation. An open letter in Illinois describing harassment and intimidation of women in state politics gathered dozens of signatures.

In 2015, Missouri's then-House Speaker resigned after admitting he sent sexually suggestive texts to an intern, and a Democratic state senator left office facing allegations of sexually harassing interns that he denies.

Hodgson, who now works for a nonprofit group in Washington, was chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, from December 2014 until July 2016. Ward ousted Burroughs as minority leader at the end of 2016, but Burroughs still serves in the Legislature.

Hodgson said when she complained about being propositioned, the lawmaker was told "to knock it off" but faced no other repercussions.

Burroughs has disputed her comments about how the incidents were handled. Ward said he knew last year about allegations that interns had served as designated drivers and was told by others that when Hodgson complained, "action was taken."

Top Republicans said Hodgson's comments were the first time they'd heard about the allegations of interns serving as designated drivers.

Burdett Loomis, a retired University of Kansas political science professor who has supervised its legislative interns for more than 30 years, also said he had not heard such an allegation. Interns work two days a week during the Legislature's annual session, which convenes in January and ends in May or early June.

"It's inappropriate," he said. "We will address it with the interns when the new crop comes in."