Veteran N.H. Lawmaker Accused of Creating 'Intimidating and Abusive' Environment in State House

Aug 9, 2018

Rep. Dan Eaton of Stoddard, one of the longest-serving Democrats in the New Hampshire Legislature, was reprimanded earlier this year after a State House employee reported that he had engaged in “a long pattern of behavior” that created a “hostile work environment.”

The complaint alleges Eaton made frequent derogatory comments to or about the employee, and that those comments “have been pervasive enough to create a work environment that is meant to be intimidating and abusive.”

The details of that complaint were included in a set of documents the House recently released to NHPR in response to a request for records related to the State House’s anti-harassment policy.

Those records did not identify Eaton, or any other official accused of harassment, by name. Instead, the House redacted the identities of the individuals involved in each of the complaints, citing privacy concerns.

But through interviews with multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, NHPR has independently verified that Eaton was the subject of this “hostile work environment” complaint.

Eaton did not return emails, a Facebook message and phone calls seeking comment. The phone number listed as his personal line on the State House website was disconnected when a reporter called it this week. Voicemail messages were left at another phone number linked to him in another public directory.

"A long pattern of behavior"

Eaton, 62, has served 14 terms in the House. He’s been a member of the powerful House Finance Committee for a decade and served as floor leader for the House when Democrats held the majority in the mid-2000s. He is a frequent presence at the State House, both on days when the Legislature is in session, and when it is not.

According to his Facebook page, Eaton has also served on the Executive Committee of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and was police chief of his hometown of Stoddard for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s.

House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff filed this memo after receiving the "hostile work environment" complaint on April 26.

 The complaint against Eaton was brought to the attention of House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff on April 27, according to a memo Pfaff filed the same day. In the document, Pfaff said an unnamed legislative staffer provided him with a “written account of her complaint against Rep. [redacted], whom she stated has long exhibited a pattern of behavior which has led to a hostile work environment.”

“She said it is uncomfortable, not only for her but for the other staff in the office, when he denigrates her and undermines her authority in front of them,” Pfaff wrote in an April 27 memo about the complaint. “[The complainant] added that it is difficult for her to speak up to him due to his role as an elected official.”

According to sources, the staffer’s written complaint, which was also among the documents the House provided to NHPR, alleges that Eaton came into her office on April 26 and said to a colleague, “If you want to have a fun day, just walk into the room and tell [the complainant], I’m male - and I suck. Because she hates all men.”

When the complainant confronted Eaton, “he laughed and said, ‘I’m just messing with you,’” according to the complaint. The complainant wrote that she replied, “Yes, you are,” and then left the room.

“This is just one incident in a long pattern of behavior that has made me feel uncomfortable. He constantly refers to me as ‘the old bat’ and sometimes the ‘granny in the corner,’ ” the complaint reads. “These comments are made to the staff when I am present and also when I am not. It has been ongoing for more than a year.”

The complainant also wrote that these statements “have been pervasive enough to create a work environment that is meant to be intimidating and abusive,” and “if this continues, my next step will be to seek legal counsel.”

After receiving the complaint and talking with the staffer who filed it, Pfaff interviewed others who were present when the comments were made, according to memos provided by the House.

On May 1, according to one of those memos, Pfaff met with Eaton and the House’s legal counsel to discuss the situation. When Pfaff confronted Eaton about the comments outlined in the complaint and “asked if that was an accurate accounting of his words on the 26th and on other occasions, [Eaton] responded that it probably was.”

This memo documents the conversation between Pfaff, the House Legal Counsel and Eaton, whose name is redacted.

  Eaton “wanted it known that their banter has gone on for a long time, good-natured, like a brother and sister,” Pfaff’s memo states. “On the day in question, he admitted to being [angry] with her because he felt [redacted] intervened on a piece of legislation. He also said he had taken allergy drugs which could have contributed to his behavior that day.”

Pfaff’s memo from that May 1 meeting indicates that he encouraged the lawmaker to seek out training from the state’s Employee Assistance Program, which co-directed the anti-harassment training offered to lawmakers earlier this year. It is unclear from the documents provided by the House whether Eaton followed up with the training.

According to the same memo, Eaton told Pfaff he would not repeat the behavior and “also said there would be no retribution.”

Later that same day, Pfaff followed up with the staffer who filed the complaint to relay what happened in the meeting with Eaton. According to a separate memo from May 1, Pfaff told the staffer that Eaton “admitted saying the remarks she found offensive” and “said he would not do it again nor would he retaliate against her for bringing forward the complaint.” Pfaff also told the staffer that Eaton “agreed to consider” reaching out to the EAP “to improve his behavior in the workplace.”

“I asked [the complainant] if this would be an acceptable resolution for her,” Pfaff wrote, “and she said it would.”

Unwanted compliments

The incident referenced in the complaint is not the only time when Eaton has said things that made others who work in the State House uncomfortable, according to additional interviews with people who have witnessed or experienced this behavior over the years.

Several women told NHPR that Eaton has openly objectified them or their colleagues — making suggestive remarks about their appearance, commenting on their body parts, or extending invitations to socialize with him outside of the State House.

These women requested that NHPR not use their names in this story, out of concerns that sharing their experiences with Eaton could hurt them professionally.

Eaton has also been known to comment to male reporters on the physical appearance of their female colleagues.

It’s unclear whether such comments may have resulted in any other formal complaints against Eaton — or any other lawmaker, for that matter — because the House refuses to identify any of the officials who have been accused of harassment in the records they’ve made available to the public. Instead, the names are redacted from all complaints and associated documents.

When asked why the records did not identify the legislators who have been credibly accused of harassment, House Legal Counsel James Cianci cited “confidentiality requirements” under the State House’s anti-harassment policy. (That policy states that complaints involving legislators “shall be handled as confidentially as possible with information being shared only with those who have a need to know and as may be required by the General Court's obligation to comply with the law.”)

Cianci argued that the House has acted “with the utmost transparency” in its disclosure of the harassment complaints thus far, but “in disclosing those documents, there is also the responsibility to take appropriate measures to redact information to comply with the confidentiality requirements consistent with the Policy.”

House leaders say that disclosing the nature of the complaints, even without disclosing the individual lawmakers accused of misconduct, sends a strong statement about the standards of behavior that are expected at the State House.

“We're forthcoming with it because I believe it's a tool to help us create a better atmosphere here,” Pfaff said.

At the same time, House leadership has repeatedly taken the position that they can only do so much to hold lawmakers fully accountable for their actions — whether in the case of alleged violations of the anti-harassment policy, or of willful refusal to acknowledge that policy in the first place.

Pfaff told NHPR he addresses all reports of alleged harassment as swiftly as possible, but his options for formally disciplining legislators are limited.

“When it comes to members of the General Court, the only folks that can address any disciplinary actions are the members themselves — they're the ones that can do that,” Pfaff said. “When it comes to a member, the members are in charge of the members.”

As it stands, however, legislators are left largely in the dark about which of their colleagues have been singled out in a given complaint.

The same is true for voters, who hold the ultimate say in whether those lawmakers keep their jobs every two year. Lack of disclosure means the public can’t know whether a lawmaker has been the subject of repeated complaints, or if their alleged behavior was severe enough to warrant a referral to law enforcement officials.

Barriers to speaking up

The Legislature’s anti-harassment policy applies to anyone who is in the State House complex for any reason: legislators, legislative staffers, lobbyists, reporters and anyone else who might spend time there. It also explicitly prohibits retaliation against those who come forward with complaints.

But legislative employees, like the one who filed the complaint against Eaton, nonetheless face significant barriers to speaking up about bad behavior because of the nature of their employment.

Unlike other state employees, State House staffers are not covered by New Hampshire’s public employee labor relations act — which means they can’t count on the additional protection against retaliation or discrimination the policy provides to other state employees. This puts them in an especially precarious situation when it comes to bringing forward complaints about alleged harassment by lawmakers, because their employment is determined by the leaders of the Legislature itself.

In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that sought to extend greater protections to legislative employees. By the end of February, the bill was tabled.

Pfaff acknowledged that the “power structure” inherent in the State House work environment may make it intimidating for employees to report inappropriate behavior by lawmakers, but he tries to emphasize to legislative staffers that they have a “duty” to inform him when legislators act out of line.

“I try to relieve that intimidation by letting them know that we're here,” Pfaff said.

Part of his role, Pfaff said, is to extend “a wing of protection” over legislative staffers, to “let them know that they're valued and they should not ever have to submit to any kind of harassment or undue, unreal work conditions.”

“Those kinds of things are not tolerated by this administration,” he added.