Sexual harassment proposal offers new lawmaker-intern relationship rules

The Indiana Senate Ethics Committee on Monday afternoon approved the new sexual harassment policy that classifies any sexual relationship between a senator and an intern as unethical.

The Legislative Council voted in November to recommend the General Assembly adopt the new policy, which adds a definition of sexual harassment to the ethical standards for lawmakers and allows the ethics committees in both chambers to hear complaints.

Since then, a section specifically addressing relationships between lawmakers and interns has been added to the policy.

Senate Ethics Committee chairwoman Liz Brown said the amended language will consider it to be unethical for any senator to engage in sexual intercourse or other sexual conduct with a paid or unpaid intern from either chamber and any branch of state government, regardless of whether the intern consented to the sexual activity.

“We feel [interns] are in a unique position— they’re temporary—so because of that we thought we should in a sense carve them out,” Brown said.

Brown said the House version of the policy is essentially the same and includes the intern provision.

The policy defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

This would apply when the senator uses his or her actions as a condition or basis for someone’s employment or for support or opposition to a legislative initiative, access to a legislator or other opportunities related to the state government. It also applies whenever the conduct is “sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive and objectionable that it interferes” with someone’s work.

“This is about as good of a definition as anybody has,” Brown said. “We’ve been very thorough.”

Complaints made to the ethics committee would be provided to the the Senate President Pro Tempore, unless it involved that individual. In that case, the majority caucus chair of the chamber would receive it. The policy prohibits the subject of the complaint from being involved in the review process.

Consequences for senators who violate the policy would be determined by the president pro tem or the majority caucus chair, if the president pro tem is the subject of the complaint. Brown said the punishments could range from being impeached to being censured to having seats changed in the chamber.

The policy does not include a statute of limitations or time restrictions for when complaints could be made.

The policy also would keep a complaint confidential, at least until disciplinary action is taken and/or the ethics committee finds the complaint credible and decides to release its report.

“Both sides should be protected until a thorough investigation is done,” Brown said.

The policy also calls for one hour of sexual harassment training for lawmakers every two years.

The personnel subcommittee of the Legislative Council was directed by the General Assembly in the last session to prepare and recommend a sexual harassment policy for lawmakers.

The subcommittee usually consists of the two top leaders from each chamber, but those lawmakers each appointed different lawmakers to temporarily serve on the body to craft the policy. The appointed legislators included Brown, R-Fort Wayne; Rep. Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville; Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis; and Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage.

Legislative staffers currently have sexual harassment guidelines they must follow, but state lawmakers do not have a specific set of rules.

The issue of sexual harassment in state government intensified this year after four women accused Attorney General Curtis Hill of inappropriately touching them at a party to celebrate the end of the last legislative session. In addition, House Speaker Brian Bosma was accused of trying to intimidate a former intern from coming forward about an alleged consensual sexual encounter she says the two had in the 1990s. Hill and Bosma have denied the allegations.

The policy would still not apply to Hill, who is elected to a separate office, or other outside parties harassing legislators and legislative staff.

The Senate Ethics Committee voted unanimously to adopt the policy. It now heads to the full Senate, which could vote on it as soon as Tuesday.

The House Statutory Committee on Ethics has not met yet to vote on its policy.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.