Proposal Would Reform System for Handling State House Harassment Complaints

Feb 20, 2019

Senate Democrats are leading an effort to change how complaints of harassment and discrimination involving lawmakers are addressed in the State House, by establishing a new human resources officer who would be responsible for investigating those allegations.

Right now, someone who has been harassed by a lawmaker has two options for reporting that incident to State House authorities: They can file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Committee, or they can make a complaint directly to the leadership offices of the Legislature.

Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat from Concord, said that approach is ineffective because it ignores the inherent power dynamics of the State House. He’s cosponsoring a bill, along with Hanover Sen. Martha Hennessey and Manchester Sen. Donna Soucy, to take the responsibility for investigating these complaints out of the hands of lawmakers and put it instead in the hands of a human resources professional.  

“I don’t care who the Senate President is, or the Speaker of the House; they may be the best person on the planet. They should not be handling sex harassment claims and complaints with respect to members of the House or the Senate,” Feltes said at a Wednesday morning hearing on the measure. “In my view, that’s an inherent conflict. At a minimum, it’s a perceived conflict.”

Feltes did not directly reference any specific incident in his testimony, but the Legislature's current approach to handling such complaints has drawn greater scrutiny in light of both the "#MeToo" movement and several cases involving prominent lawmakers from both parties. 

During his 2018 Congressional bid, former Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn faced persistent questions from both the press and his political opponents about a 2013 comment he made to a Senate intern. (The Senate's former legal counsel said he overheard Sanborn refer to a sex act; Sanborn characterized the comment as "a crass joke.") Many details of the incident — including the fact that Senate leaders spent about $4,000 to hire a law firm to review the situation — were not made public until roughly four years after it happened.

Democratic Rep. Dan Eaton was also reprimanded by House leaders last year after a legislative employee complained that he frequently made derogatory comments to her, which were “pervasive enough to create a work environment that is meant to be intimidating and abusive.” While NHPR was able to independently verify Eaton's involvement, House officials have repeatedly declined to identify any individual lawmaker who has been reprimanded as a result of a harassment complaint citing privacy concerns. 

In separate interviews, multiple women who work at the State House told NHPR they routinely had interactions with lawmakers that left them feeling uncomfortable, but often hesitated to report them because they also felt uncomfortable bringing their complaints to leaders of the Legislature. 

Under the new proposal for dealing with harassment complaints, Feltes said the human resources official would serve as a “clearinghouse” for complaints, to decide whether a particular incident could be addressed internally or whether more serious intervention – from the Legislative Ethics Committee or law enforcement – is required.

Responding to a question from Sen. Sharon Carson, of Londonderry, Feltes said he had not considered whether to add a statute of limitations for reporting incidents to the new human resources officer but was open to discussions on the matter. He did, however, express some hesitation about preventing people from reporting incidents that involve legislators who recently left office.

“I don’t know if we’d necessarily want to preclude that investigation, because it could shed light on a number of things,” Feltes said.

In addition to creating the new human resources position, the bill would also require the Legislature to review its rules regarding harassment — including whether training on the issue should be mandatory — at least once every two years.

An original draft of the bill said any legislator’s failure to complete anti-harassment training "shall be grounds for sanctions of, at a minimum, not being seated on a standing committee,” but Feltes said he opted to make the approach to training more open-ended after hearing concerns about that provision.

Aside from Feltes, only the New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence testified in support of the bill. No one testified against it. Gov. Chris Sununu, speaking to reporters later in the day, said he had no problem with the idea of creating a new human resources position at the State House.