9 Investigates: Staffer Alleges Widespread Sexual Harassment At State Capitol
OKLAHOMA CITY - “Maybe into my second week when I was kind of pulled aside, ‘don't be alone with this member, don't be alone with that member. This member will probably try and do this. This member does this, this member will tell you that,’” Jane said.
Jane is a Legislative Assistant in the House of Representatives. She agreed to speak about claims of the sexual harassment made by staffers at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Sexual harassment was thrust to the forefront of minds at the Capitol late in 2016. It was discovered Rep. Dan Kirby (R-Tulsa) accused of sexually harassing a former staffer who sued the House for wrongful termination. The House, under then Speaker Jeff Hickman, paid her and her attorneys nearly $45,000.
Part of the payment ended up designated for housekeeping and cleaning supplies, a designation the current Speaker of the House Charles McCall’s office said was a clerical error.
Kirby attempted to resign, then rescinded in Dec of 2016. His decision prompted an investigation by the House Rules Committee into the conduct of Kirby and Rep. William Fourkiller (D-Adair) who was accused of harassing a high school student working as a page at the capitol.
During the investigation, it was discovered Kirby shared an explicit relationship a second former aide. The relationship included lurid texts and nude photos. The aide said she felt trapped and worried about whether Kirby would retaliate against her for not engaging or sending the photos.
In a historic first, the committee voted to recommend to expel Kirby. A representative had never been recommended for expulsion in the chamber’s century long existence. Kirby resigned several days later. It was official March, 1, 2017.
Fourkiller, who refused to testify in front of the committee, was sent to mandatory sensitivity training and was barred from participating in the page program for a year, except for those pages from his home district.
But staffers at the Capitol said the kind of behavior of which Kirby and Fourkiller were accused is all too common at the Capitol.
“These claims are frequent unwanted touching, comments on body parts, specific body parts. Comments on dreams that person has had you know sexually explicit dreams. Really just awful things,” Jane said.
At the time of the sexual harassment investigation into Rep. Dan Kirby, Speaker of the House Charles McCall said "there is simply no excuse for sexual harassment by lawmakers at the Capitol”. In a statement on Wednesday, he reiterated his stance.
“I think it’s clear that since I became Speaker of the House on January 3, that we take complaints of sexual harassment very seriously and we will protect those who bring complaints,” McCall said in an emailed statement.
But according to Jane, harassment and claims aren't taken seriously or seriously investigated.
“If you can't understand that leaving a note on your assistant's desk that says ‘I couldn't stop staring at your boobs today.’ If you're not sure if that's inappropriate or not I think you have a real misunderstanding about what sexual harassment is,” she said.
News 9 asked the House for all sexual harassment claims dating back to January of 2010. But the House's lawyer said under state law they are not required to release those records. The law they're citing is the state Open Records Act. But lawmakers decided to exempt themselves from public requests, effectively closing off the people's house from the people.
“About 50% of women can expect to be sexually harassed at some point during their working career,” OU Professor of Management Mark Bolino said. “I think the fear of retaliation is the number one issue.”
Fears of retaliation and what academics call “incivility,” can lead to lower productivity and morale, according to Bolino.
“Incivility in the workplace in general, it harms people's psychological well-being, their health. It harms their job attitudes,” Bolino said. “It harms their productivity. It harms their willingness to go the extra mile for the organization.”
Most experts agree adequate training is the right way to deal with widespread sexual harassment. However, at the Capitol, lawmakers don't regularly receive that training.
While the guidelines for harassment and reporting it are outlined in one manual given to all House employees, there's no mention of it anywhere in the handbook given to assistants.
The investigation into Kirby and Fourkiller did lead to recommendations that each member take annual training and require the speaker to write specific procedures to deal with sexual harassment. But, Jane doesn't know if it will get better for staffers.
“I would say amongst a large portion of the members it's apathy. Amongst the LA's that I've spoken with it's been cautious optimism that things might change?”