GRAND FORKS — Hours before she stood at her desk in the well in the North Dakota House, Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, texted a reporter. She wasn't sure she'd be available for comment later. This was all harder than she'd thought.
Not so long afterward, O'Brien spoke for more than 10 minutes to a rapt chamber, detailing her experiences serving alongside Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson — who was expelled from the House of Representatives on Thursday afternoon, March 4, after growing accusations of sexual harassment.
O’Brien recounted one incident in 2017 — just one of her experiences with him — when Simons approached her desk, looked her “up and down,” and asked her what she was wearing.
"I have not worn that dress since that day," she said. "Every time I go to pick out a dress to wear, I am reminded of the empty-stomach feeling I was left with that day when those words left his mouth."
O'Brien has been one of the names at the center of the discussion to expel Simons for days, speaking publicly about her experiences for the first time in late February. Her decision to speak out added momentum to a scandal that has been brewing in Bismarck for weeks after Simons’ behavior — documented in numerous cases over the years — was revealed in a 14-page Legislative Council document.
“As more of these encounters come to light, from women who experienced harassment over the last few years, months and days, I think, ‘Shame on you, Emily Marie O’Brien, for not coming forward earlier and being a voice for others,’” O’Brien told the chamber. “Two days ago, my daughter turned 2 years old. I cannot stomach a future for her in which these sorts of actions can continue unchecked. So here I am, using my voice.”
Hours later — after debating accusations of misconduct, the weight of precedent and the fine details of the expulsion procedure — the chamber on Thursday voted 69-25 to expel Simons. O’Brien declined comment following the vote.
Grand Forks legislators mostly voted in favor of expulsion, which was decided in two key rounds of voting. For technical reasons, the entire House of Representatives entered a “committee” setting to debate and vote on an expulsion resolution; when they voted on the expulsion as a committee, that sent the matter back to the full House — themselves — for a final vote.
The practical result was two rounds of House voting on the expulsion itself.
Six of Grand Forks’ eight House representatives voted twice to expel Simons. But not everyone was so convinced to vote for expulsion. Rep. Steve Vetter, a Grand Forks Republican, opposed the expulsion in the first round of voting, then backed it in the second. During debate, he had sought a “middle ground” between a censure and an expulsion, suggesting that a censure and some other penalty — like being barred from in-person appearances at the Capitol — might be the best solution.
“I felt like something needed to be done,” Vetter told Forum News Service of his second vote to expel. “(But) I just felt like expelling a member without following the process was on the harsher side. So I wanted to do a censure with punishment.”
Vetter’s reference to “process” echoes defenders of Simons, who argued the chamber was being too hasty in expelling Simons without a more thorough investigation.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, voted against the expulsion resolution twice. He could not be reached for comment prior to this article's publication.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, has previously said complaints against Simons were not filed formally, limiting leaders’ ability for discipline, even though top Republicans were aware of the accusations facing the Dickinson representative. But there’s still widespread worry at the Capitol that the current systems meant to protect against harassment either aren’t adequate or haven’t earned the trust of victims.
It’s not clear what, precisely, happens next — or how the Legislature can adapt to better serving victims of harassment. But the Legislature’s procedures are now under scrutiny.
“This has not been handled as well as it should, or properly,” Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said. “I think most, if not everybody, would agree that is the case.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, said he sees the Legislature reviewing sexual harassment policies after the formal session closes — perhaps during the interim.
“It's never bad to review a policy or the process that supports it,” Sanford said. “... Hopefully we don't have to encounter that kind of potential activity again. But the time to review it is now, when it's fresh."
Speaking on Thursday evening, Sanford spoke for many of his colleagues when he described the intensity of the afternoon.
"It was a tough day, you know?” Sanford said. “You're making history. It's a tough issue.”