SANTA FE, N.M. — Documenting sexual harassment complaints against state lawmakers and publicly releasing the outcomes can provide encouragement for people who might otherwise be hesitant to report allegations of inappropriate behavior.
Experts and many female lawmakers say that's true even if the complaints are ultimately dismissed, because it shows legislative chambers take the matter seriously.
"If there's no accountability, if we don't know what the outcomes are ... it makes it really hard for them to come forward, it makes it hard for them to trust the system," said Debbie Dougherty, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who researches sexual harassment policies.
In New Mexico, lobbyist Julianna Koob said she was harassed three years ago while working on behalf of a coalition of sexual assault programs but never reported it for fear that doing so would affect her livelihood.
"I had no idea that there was a policy for sexual harassment, and the behavior was so in the dark that I didn't think that it should have been reported" at the time, Koob said.
Before convening this year, the New Mexico Legislature overhauled its sexual harassment policy to include an outside legal counsel and provided anti-harassment training for lawmakers. It subsequently received a flurry of harassment complaints — two against lawmakers and two against staff — during a 30-day session that ended Feb. 15. That stood in sharp contrast to the prior decade, when just one formal complaint of harassment was filed against a lawmaker.
A similar surge occurred in the Missouri House, which received twice as many sexual harassment complaints in the two years after strengthening its policies in late 2015 as it had in the two previous years.
"If you track this, it is like influenza — you can see where the outbreaks are, you can see where the problems are, and then you can specifically tailor a remedy," said Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University who focuses on sexual harassment law.
She said the constant churn of lawmakers and staff because of term limits and elections makes it all the more important to establish a formal system of documenting sexual misconduct complaints.
The Kansas Legislature is one many across the country that told the AP it has no records of any sexual misconduct complaints against lawmakers since 2008. Yet a former top legislative aide went public last fall with assertions that a lawmaker had asked her for sex and that female college interns had regularly served as designated drivers for drunken lawmakers in recent years.
The Kansas City-based nonprofit Women's Foundation, which recommended revisions to the Missouri House policies, recently undertook a similar review for the Kansas Legislature and suggested it begin reporting annual data on sexual harassment claims and outcomes.
"It's more concerning when states are saying there aren't any sexual harassment claims being filed, because that means the policies and procedures probably aren't implemented and put into practice," said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation.