BISMARCK — Erin Oban said she can’t help but feel partially responsible for the alleged sexual harassment some women have recently experienced in the halls of the North Dakota Capitol.
The Bismarck Democratic senator said she was verbally harassed by a fellow legislator when she was new to the upper chamber but didn’t report the incident to avoid causing trouble. She’s afraid her inaction might have perpetuated the abusive behavior.
“I was trying to prove that I earned a place to be there, and I didn’t want to make that harder,” Oban said.
Within the last week, a flurry of sexual harassment accusations against Rep. Luke Simons became public, with multiple colleagues and staffers saying the Dickinson Republican repeatedly made inappropriate comments and exhibited “creepy” behavior toward them. One female lawmaker said she moved her desk across the House chamber due to Simons’ inappropriate commentary on her appearance, and several staff members have requested they not work with him.
Simons’ alleged misconduct dates back to at least 2017, but most of the women reported the allegations to their supervisors behind closed doors and none have submitted a formal complaint against the lawmaker. Simons has denied the accusations.
Legislative leaders say the allegations piling up on one of their members have exposed a possible crack in a recently revamped workplace harassment policy. Even though GOP leaders knew of Simons’ alleged behavior, the absence of formal complaints means they didn’t have the authority to punish the lawmaker, said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington.
After the allegations became widely known, the House voted to expel Simons from the chamber on Thursday, March 4. But some of his colleagues are wondering if the harassment policy could be improved to ensure offenders can be disciplined before their transgressions become a pattern of poor behavior.
The Simons case also has shed light on an underlying lack of trust in the harassment reporting system, said House Minority Leader Josh Boschee.
Legislative Council Director John Bjornson wrote in a memo earlier this year that Capitol staffers clearly have a “major reluctance” to file formal complaints against an offender because “they believe there is a lack of support from legislators for staff.”
A policy 'loophole'
Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, drafted the workplace harassment policy in 2017. At the time, Hogan said she received pushback from other lawmakers who insisted harassment did not exist in the state Capitol.
“The common reaction was ‘This doesn’t happen in North Dakota,’” Hogan said.
In light of the allegations against Simons, Hogan said it may be time to change the policy to create a culture that emboldens people to report mistreatment.
The policy states that employees and lawmakers are “encouraged” to file complaints with legislative leaders if they believe they have been harassed on the basis of sex, race, religion or other personal characteristics. Leadership will then take steps to investigate the claims and determine an appropriate punishment.
Boschee said this established harassment policy didn’t even factor into Simons’ case because no alleged victims filed formal complaints against him to set the process in motion.
There’s no rule on the books that allows party leaders to punish other lawmakers for the kind of behavior allegedly exhibited by Simons, and unlike bosses in other lines of work, legislative leaders don’t supervise or direct their elected members, Boschee said.
“If I was in the shoes of Rep. Pollert, I don’t know what we could do other than make (the allegations) public and start the process outside of the will of the victim,” Boschee said. “This isn’t even our test case of this policy.... I think it showed the holes in our policy and our process.”
Pollert said he truly couldn’t discipline Simons because of the limitations of the harassment policy, though he spoke to the lawmaker after each accusation came through his office.
The Republican leader stopped short of saying the harassment policy is flawed, but he noted there are “loopholes” that might warrant further inspection. Pollert said it’s too early to talk about specific reforms to the harassment guidelines.
Boschee said he would like leaders to have the power to independently sanction or assign training to misbehaving members even when no formal complaints have been filed.
Above all, Boschee said lawmakers have to restore confidence in the reporting system, so there isn’t a repeat of Simons’ case.
The Forum reached out to all the women Republican North Dakota legislators, the majority of whom did not respond. Those who did said their colleagues are good people and it's important not to paint everyone with a broad brush in terms of harassment.
However, multiple lawmakers said they've heard of some kind of harassment against women during their tenure.
“It’s inexcusable,” said Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, specifically of the allegations against Simons. “I’m just terribly disappointed and frustrated.”
The women who have accused Simons of harassment may not have filed a formal complaint because they weren’t aware he could potentially be punished, said Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo. With Simons having faced real consequences, Roers said victims may be willing to come forward knowing that offenders could be held accountable.
“I hate that this is how we had to get there, but maybe now people will be willing to speak up when something inappropriate does happen,” Roers said.
Watch a replay of today's session from the North Dakota State Capitol House Chamber by following this link. The meeting adjourned at 5 p.m., after a House vote.