N.H. House Sanctions Reps Who Skipped Anti-Harassment Training, Over GOP Objections

Feb 20, 2020

Seven Republican lawmakers were reprimanded on the floor of the New Hampshire House Thursday for not completing newly mandatory anti-harassment and discrimination training — but it didn’t happen without objection. 

The votes to issue the sanctions fell along mostly partisan lines. Some of the sharpest criticism against the penalties came from lawmakers who had themselves completed the training but objected to what they characterized as an arbitrary decision to publicly punish colleagues who did not attend.

“This is entirely unfair to those members, including me, who voted to support adoption of the rule who did not expect their fellow members to be dragged before us for reprimand,” House Republican Leader Dick Hinch said at the conclusion of the House session.

The House updated its rules at the beginning of 2019, shortly after Democrats took the majority, to make anti-harassment and discrimination training mandatory. While anti-harassment training was offered in earlier years, it was sparsely attended.

That rule change did not specify a deadline for completing that training or any possible penalties for not complying, but House leaders say they offered ample opportunities for legislators to satisfy the requirements.

House Speaker Steve Shurtleff said at least eight training sessions were offered over the past year, and he also made accommodations for legislators who provided proof that they attended comparable training through their employers.

Shurtleff also allowed one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jess Edwards of Auburn, to conduct an alternative anti-harassment training that included greater emphasis on protecting oneself against false accusations — a subject that Edwards felt was not sufficiently addressed in the official anti-harassment programs.

“We did everything we could to make sure that people realized that the deadline was coming, the training needed to be completed or there would be consequences,” Shurtleff said.

Thursday’s sanctions unfolded over nearly four hours of at times contentious debate about whether such training was necessary, whether lawmakers had received enough notice that they could face public punishment for not participating and whether the House had the authority to require such training in the first place.

“When I first heard that we were going to be mandated to take an in-person sexual harassment training session, I found it very offensive and very insulting, actually,” said Rep. Charlie Burns, of Milford, the first of the lawmakers sanctioned on Thursday. “I was raised to be very respectful of one another, and I was raised especially to be respectful to women. And there is not a single person in this room, this building, this complex that can ever honestly say that I have sexually harassed them or in fact harassed them in any way.”

The Democratic leadership of the House opted to issue each sanction individually, giving the lawmaker accused of noncompliance a chance to offer his or her point of view before the full House voted on whether to issue a reprimand.

Some of the sanctioned lawmakers opted to deliver lengthy and somber floor speeches decrying what they viewed as a tipping point in how the House handles disciplinary matters; others, like Rep. Betsy McKinney of Londonderry, were more self-deprecating.

“If somebody wants to sexually harass me, I would be extremely flattered,” McKinney said, drawing laughs and applause from one pocket of the room, “but I’d advise them to get glasses.”

In addition to Burns and McKinney, the other lawmakers publicly sanctioned on Thursday included Rep. John Burt of Goffstown, Rep. Michael Sylvia of Belmont, Rep. Kevin Craig of Lancaster, Rep. Kevin Verville of Deerfield and Rep. Raymond Howard of Alton. 

Six more lawmakers who were not present at Thursday’s House session but who have not complied with the training requirements are expected to be reprimanded at a later date. Those lawmakers include Rep. Glen Aldrich of Gilford, Rep. John Callum of Unity, Rep. Ed Comeau of Brookfield, Rep. William Fowler of Seabrook, Rep. Becky Owens of Chester and Rep. James Webb of Derry.

An additional lawmaker who was initially called forward for punishment on Thursday, Rep. Andrew Prout of Hudson, was cleared by his colleagues after testifying that he had completed anti-harassment training offered by his employer. Prout said his work schedule made it difficult to attend House-sponsored training sessions, but he watched a video on his own time and tried to submit documentation that he went through similar training elsewhere.

“Attending an in-person training is easier said than done,” Prout said. “I made plans a few times, but life kept getting in the way. I wasn’t going to bend over backwards, cancel a meeting at work, miss a kids’ event or miss out on something else to comply with a rule that I viewed as unconstitutional.”

While the sanctions for not attending anti-harassment training played out in full view of the public on Thursday, some lawmakers pointed out that actual allegations of misconduct at the State House are rarely as transparent.

“This process has lacked fairness, lacked transparency and applies a different standard for these members than for other members who have faced more serious allegations this term,” said Rep. Jeanine Notter, who has completed the training but objected to the punishments leveled on Thursday.

The House under both Republican and Democratic leadership has taken the position that it does not need to disclose the names of lawmakers that have been credibly accused or punished for harassment, citing privacy concerns. In one recent case, NHPR was only able to confirm that a senior Democratic lawmaker had been disciplined for “a long pattern of behavior” that created a “hostile work environment” because people came forward confidentially with details about that situation. 

As the votes were unfolding, Democratic lawmakers took to Twitter to express disappointment that Republicans were pushing back so vocally against the training requirement.

Rep. Alison Nutting-Wong, of Nashua, said the same day the House was debating the merits of anti-harassment training, she had an experience that underscored the need for more education on appropriate behavior at the State House.

“Today, I got into an elevator to go up to Reps Hall. It was full of old guys, and I was a little nervous, but they're my colleagues, right? A couple of them said, ‘don't worry, we don't bite’ and someone added, ‘just nibble,’” she tweeted. “Was it meant as sexual harassment? Probably not. Was I uncomfortable in my workplace? Yes. I mean, do what you want with the information, but we're talking about trainings today, and my elevator ride happened today too.”

In a later interview, Nutting-Wong said she was frustrated that the House spent a full afternoon “talking about an issue that we shouldn’t need to talk about.” The way she sees it, requiring lawmakers to attend a single training session to make sure they’re conducting themselves appropriately as public servants isn’t too much to ask.

“This is all about respect,” she said. “It shows that we respect the people that work here, it shows that we respect our colleagues and the people who come into this building.”