Harassment at the N.H. State House: What We Know
Twelve years ago, a sexual harassment scandal at the New Hampshire State House ended with the institution being forced to pay $85,000 in public funds toward a settlement. It also prompted a broader reckoning about how the Legislature handled misconduct within its ranks.
In response to the case, Speaker Gene Chandler (who was the House’s top officer when it was sued for not doing enough to rein in a lawmaker’s sexual harassment and was recently reelected to the same position) led an effort to reform how such complaints were handled. The solution involved putting the Legislative Ethics Committee in charge of investigating complaints against sitting lawmakers.
Separately, the Legislature has since enacted a policy providing an “alternative complaint process,” allowing people to report sexual harassment and discrimination to the House or Senate chiefs of staff, as well as the leaders of those bodies.
Here’s more on how those processes work and how they’ve been used in recent years.
Who can file a complaint about a New Hampshire lawmaker’s behavior?
Anyone. There are two separate policies governing harassment in the Legislature. One is outlined in the legislative ethics law; another is outlined in the New Hampshire General Court's “Policy Against Sexual and other Harassment and Discrimination.”
Officials at the Legislative Ethics Committee and within legislative leadership say they welcome complaints from anyone: legislators, legislative staff, lobbyists, members of the media or the public.
How many sexual harassment complaints have been filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee since the reforms enacted a decade ago?
The Legislative Ethics Committee says it has a record of just one complaint alleging sexual harassment. But the panel determined the claim didn’t merit investigation and dismissed it.
Complaints to the ethics committee are only made public if they make it past an initial review and investigation, so we don’t know what prompted the complaint.
According to ethics committee chairwoman and former House Speaker Donna Sytek, legislative ethics complaints are “often settled by informal agreement.”
If the committee were to receive a complaint about sexual harassment, Sytek said, its members could ask for a response from the accused official and proceed from there.
“If we felt there was reason to go on, we would investigate. We could talk to witnesses and we could bring formal discipline,” Sytek said. But, she added, “I'm spelling out a procedure I haven't actually been through.”
What complaints have been filed under the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy?
NHPR sought records related to violations of the legislative sexual harassment policy from both the House and Senate.
Richard Lehmann, the Senate’s legal counsel, said the chamber has never received a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment by a sitting senator.
Lehmann did provide invoices showing the New Hampshire Senate paid roughly $4,100 to Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm that specializes in handling sexual harassment, for services in 2013 and 2014. Lehmann did not respond to questions about what services the law firm provided, whether they were prompted by a specific incident and, if so, how that incident was resolved.
Lehmann also said he was withholding several emails between legislative officials and the same law firm, as well as other documents pursuant to NHPR’s request, citing disclosure exemptions related to attorney-client privilege, attorney work product privilege and internal personnel matters.
The House was more responsive to NHPR’s request for records related to sexual harassment, but officials said they were only able to provide records dating back to 2015.
Since that time, there have been nine reports alleging misconduct by male representatives and one alleging misconduct by a male legislative employee.
House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff also provided memos and other documents related to all but one of those reports, detailing the nature of the alleged harassment and the manner in which the reports were resolved. The identities of both the person reporting the harassment and the accused lawmakers were redacted.
The documents withheld by the House involved a complaint from a female employee who “was offended by a cartoon put on her desk by her male supervisor.” It was the only official complaint that involved conduct by an employee, and the office cited “internal personnel practices” as the reason for not disclosing more.
What did the records show about how the House responded?
Most of the cases were resolved informally.
In February 2015, records show the House legal counsel responded to a complaint that a male lawmaker “inappropriately touched on [a female representative] on the knee… while she was waiting to deliver a parliamentary inquiry” by instructing that male lawmaker not to interact with her again “unless absolutely necessary for floor or committee work.”
In early 2016, legislative leaders learned that one state representative “confided in a friend that he has received numerous telephone calls and Facebook postings” from another male representative seeking to “attain a closer and more personal relationship with him,” according to a memo filed Pfaff about the incident.
In the same memo, Pfaff wrote that he reached out to the lawmaker receiving the messages and asked him to share the communication “so that a record could be kept if needed for the future.” The lawmaker said he eventually stopped responding to his colleague’s messages, according to the memo, and Pfaff advised the lawmaker to “tell him he is not interested in any further communication” if contacted again. “If that is unsuccessful,” Pfaff wrote, “we would take the necessary steps to resolve the situation.”
In June 2017, employees complained that one lawmaker used “endearing” greetings that were “too familiar.” Pfaff responded by talking with the representative, who reportedly “did not realize his remarks were offensive and said he would not use those phrases again.”
Beyond the official docket of complaints, Pfaff told NHPR he is also aware of several incidents where lobbyists said legislators’ behavior crossed a line. He said those incidents, by their very nature, are “catastrophically inappropriate” — but rarely resulted in formal complaints.
“I've never had a bona fide complaint [from a lobbyist] because the folks didn't want to come forward, because they make their living quite frankly as lobbyists and they didn't want to expose themselves by reporting a member,” Pfaff said. “And they thought it would have cascaded away into something that would have been a detriment to their employer.”