VOL. 132 | NO. 44 | Thursday, March 2, 2017
View From the Hill
View From the Hill: House Leaders Still Figuring Out Sexual Harassment Policy
By Sam Stockard
In a case of déjà vu all over again, Democratic state Rep. Bo Mitchell isn’t willing to give Republican House leaders a break on their handling of former Rep. Mark Lovell’s resignation for alleged sexual misconduct.
Lovell, a freshman Republican from Shelby County, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment just weeks into the legislative session, his first.
With apologies to Yogi Berra, ask Mitchell if he’s satisfied with an investigation of Lovell’s actions and House Speaker Beth Harwell’s oversight of the process. He’s been here before, launching into a cascade of criticism.
“I’m just shocked that we can have secret meetings, that we can’t even tell the public nor the media when a committee met or the agenda of that committee,” the Nashville Democrat says. “That should be shocking to the citizens of Tennessee, that something like that can happen in our government.
“I still stand by, if the allegations … rumors that were going around (about) the conduct of that legislator, anywhere else in this state you would be arrested for those actions. So, I don’t know why being in the Tennessee General Assembly gets you a pass for committing a crime.”
Asked whether it would be up to the victim to file criminal charges, Mitchell has a similar quick answer, one he has seen repeated several times since the House, in a summer special session, glossed over the firing of an employee who complained about now-former Rep. Jeremy Durham.
“And, as I’ve said over and over again, I think we’ve set a tone in this Tennessee General Assembly that when someone did speak up about sexual harassment they were shown the door, they were fired,” he points out.
“So, I think we have set a tone with the employees, the staff, the interns, the members of the public who have to work here on a daily basis: You better keep your mouth shut.”
The avalanche continues: “And that’s sad. No, it’s not sad, it’s pathetic. And so that’s the state we’re in, that the victims have to remain silent.”
Picking up where he left off
Mitchell hammered the House Republican supermajority last summer when it voted to expel Durham after an attorney general’s investigation showed Durham had inappropriate conduct with 22 women in the General Assembly.
The investigation also showed one of those young women was removed from her job by a legislator and then released. But when Mitchell demanded action against that legislator, he was cut off on the House floor – and rather unceremoniously.
Thus, Mitchell is hardly shocked when a case of sexual impropriety surfaced again this session. He points out the House’s main reaction to the Durham situation was to ask lawmakers to watch a 22-minute video on sexual harassment, one Lovell didn’t see before he opted to leave the Legislature and head back to Shelby County to spend more time with his family.
Many other House members, including Democrats, also failed to meet a Jan. 31 deadline for viewing the video.
But while the Eads Republican continually denied any improper activity before he issued a half-hearted apology for inadvertently hurting anyone’s feelings, a House Ethics Subcommittee found he violated the House’s harassment policy.
Harwell, who gave a semi-description of the investigation and committee actions while speaking to the Tennessee Press Association, says a probe of Lovell’s actions began the day after the incident and took 2 1/2 to three days.
(He is believed to have improperly touched one or two staffers during a Feb. 7 reception at a nearby restaurant.)
That means the staff investigation would have been finished around Feb. 10.
Lovell didn’t resign, though, until the morning of Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, of course. He had to be prompted by House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, who told him the previous evening he expected him to resign if the allegations against him proved to be true.
A House subcommittee didn’t find them true until days later, though, and after resigning, Lovell told a Memphis TV reporter he was asked to leave the Legislature so he and the Republican Party could avoid embarrassment.
Williams says that’s not true, and Harwell believes the House Caucus leader’s conversation was appropriate.
No doubt, this is a learning process for House leadership, which didn’t have much of a policy until adopting guidelines in the wake of the Durham debacle.
But it almost seems they were making up the rules as they went.
Harwell and Rep. Steve McDaniel, who chairs ethics panels in the House, acknowledge they weren’t certain they had any jurisdiction over Lovell once he resigned. Harwell issued a statement saying as much the Tuesday afternoon of his resignation.
Two days later, the House Ethics Subcommittee decided to issue a report, apparently based on Harwell’s about-face decision, after consulting staff, that she still had some authority because Lovell’s file remained open until the end of February.
Feeling the heat?
OK, so Harwell and her leadership team are still figuring out the sexual harassment policy. We’ll say it had nothing to do with pressure put on by people such as Mitchell and Democratic Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis, who questioned whether the controlling party was trying to let Lovell escape without getting into too much trouble.
The day after Lovell said he was urged to resign to stop the bleeding, Harris broached the idea that a criminal investigation might be needed to delve into the matter.
When it was over, Harris opted for a forgiving tone, saying he was “somewhat satisfied” with the outcome.
McDaniel, meanwhile, says he led subcommittee meetings in the days after Lovell’s resignation and the panel ultimately decided to put a letter in the former representative’s file because “it’s obvious he’s done something he shouldn’t have done.”
The subcommittee advised Lovell to avoid contact with the complainant and other parties involved in the complaint. It also reiterated its commitment to protecting legislators, employees and visitors by “providing an environment free of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Discrimination and harassment in any form will not be tolerated. The subcommittee strongly urges all individuals, including the media, to respect the privacy of those involved in this complaint. In accordance with Policy and Rule 82, no further information concerning this complaint will be released.”
Harwell, of course, stands by the handling of the Lovell incident, and, no doubt about it, she and other leaders did better than with Durham, whose shenanigans escalated to the point of embarrassment for the entire state of political affairs in Tennessee – well, at least for those whose symbol is an elephant.
Says Harwell, “I think our new workplace harassment policy proved that, in fact, it works. This was handled swiftly with the victim’s identity never known. It was handled in a proper fashion. The new subcommittee met, and they were professional in how they handled it. It was resolved in a timely fashion, and I think that’s a real credit to the new policy.”
Harwell discounts a 50 percent approval rating for the Legislature based on a recent MTSU poll and points instead to a 60 percent approval rating in a Vanderbilt poll.
“Things like this come up in every occupation, every walk of life. It’s how you handle them during [the] crisis that’s the true measure. I think we handled them correctly,” she adds.
Figuring things out
As Barney Fife used to say, “Nip it, nip it in the bud!” Harwell didn’t do that with Durham and nearly paid a political price. She got much closer with Lovell, who’d been in the Legislature for only a month and was a lot easier to dispose of than Durham.
But somebody in the General Assembly is still getting away with firing a female worker for leveling a complaint against Durham. And, in the latest instance of junior high behavior, a member of the Legislature had to file the complaint before anything was done regarding Lovell.
This gives credence to Mitchell’s claim that victims are afraid to speak up. It also opens the door for questions about the process and why Lovell was urged to leave before the subcommittee finished meeting – in secret – and determining he did anything wrong.
As Mitchell notes, the Legislature and victim were fortunate a lawmaker came forward and filed the complaint. Otherwise, it would be business as usual in the General Assembly.
At this point, the Legislature would prove wise to follow more sage advice of the late Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.