A top State House leader said this week that an incident involving a sitting senator prompted him to seek the advice of an outside law firm, a process that spurred a larger overhaul of the New Hampshire Legislature’s anti-harassment policy several years ago.
In an interview with NHPR about the State House’s anti-harassment efforts, Senate President Chuck Morse said he led an effort to reevaluate the chamber’s harassment policy after “learn[ing] that we needed to do a better job here” when he became president in 2013.
Asked to elaborate, Morse confirmed that Sen. Andy Sanborn’s use of self-described “crass language” in 2013 — which Sanborn acknowledged publicly in December — led Morse to seek legal advice from a New York-based firm specializing in harassment, Jackson-Lewis.
“As we dealt with a situation that has been well documented now — I've been this way whether I was a selectman back in Salem or sitting on the boards I sat at in the local community up here — the first thing I would do is ask for legal advice, and that's what we did,” Morse said.
In a follow-up interview, Morse downplayed the direct connection between the incident with Sanborn and the broader overhaul of the State House sexual harassment policy, calling them “two separate situations.”
“When we brought in the attorney that we brought in, we asked him to look at what we had today, and they saw deficiencies in our policies and thought we ought to be covering sexual harassment and harassment of all types and have a system for dealing with it,” Morse said. “It was much greater than any situation that was presented to me in August.”
Public records provided earlier by the Senate show that the chamber spent about $4,000 to work with the law firm, Jackson-Lewis, in 2013 and 2014. Until now, Senate leaders had not publicly acknowledged the connection between that effort and the incident involving Sanborn.
Neither Sanborn nor Senate officials have confirmed the exact nature of the incident in question. Calls and emails to Sanborn’s campaign spokesman this week were not returned.
However, in a statement issued last month, Sanborn said he used “crass language in response to an absurd statement made by someone in my office” in early 2013. He said another Senate staffer heard the comment and brought it to the attention of then-Senate President Peter Bragdon. Sanborn also said his wife, state Rep. Laurie Sanborn, was present at the time.
“[Bragdon] and legal counsel fully explored it and determined it did not violate any Senate policy and no one in the room was offended by the joke. No complaint was filed. Case closed -- if that’s news so be it,” Sanborn’s statement read. “At a time when women across this land are being harassed and disrespected, it is disgusting that anyone is trying to equate a crass joke to all the real challenges women are facing today."
Sanborn, a Republican who is also running for Congress, has declined to answer additional questions about the incident, including what he said and to whom he was speaking.
Morse said he couldn’t elaborate on how the incident with Sanborn was resolved. He said a recent letter to lobbyists, informing them that they are covered by the State House sexual harassment policy, was part of a larger effort to make sure everyone who works with lawmakers knows their rights.
“We want them to feel comfortable,” Morse said. “I think people need to understand that there's not some ogre sitting up in the Senate President's office. I mean, while I'm here this is an honorable position. I treat it with that honor. A senator — while they have standing because they're a senator — it doesn't mean that whoever's coming in and talking to me, their issue won't be addressed because that's what we're here for.”