State News

Lawmakers support withholding sexual harassment data despite concern from experts

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and state Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, both defended the decision to withhold records of sexual harassment issued against legislators and their staff Tuesday in an effort to protect victim privacy.

Image By: Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin State Legislature and Emily Buck

Majority and minority leaders in the Wisconsin Assembly have both agreed not to release records regarding complaints or investigations into sexual assault allegations against legislators or their staff, even though many professionals argue that this is ineffective when it comes to protecting victims’ rights.

The opposition came to light as a plethora of national reports surfaced in the media in recent weeks exposing sexual harassment by men in high profile, public positions.

The decision to maintain a hold on sexual harassment claims records against legislators or their staff came from state Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller and state Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Rank. Both stated that withholding records fosters confidence among employees that the Assembly has the ability to resolve internal issues.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, both say they support the decision because they want to respect victim confidentiality. Vos argues that keeping the complaints private will encourage future victims to feel comfortable reporting any issues that might occur.

“The goal of an internal process is to make sure that every single person who feels they were the victim of some kind of harassment has a way to go to be able to report it to somebody, have some confidentiality and have it investigated," Vos said.

However, many people believe that releasing the records is a way to preserve accountability and give power back to the victims who do want their stories shared.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, and Jennifer Drobac, a University of Indiana sexual harassment law expert, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it is wrong to keep the records in secret.

Drobac claims if you do not publicize the identity of the perpetrator then they are more likely to commit an assault again.

“The risk of leaving [the records] in secret grossly outweighs the risk to the individual women in most cases,” Drobac said.

Vos argued in 2014 the GOP Assembly stripped former Majority Leader Rep. Bill Kramer of his leadership position after he was publicly accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment — including an incident where he groped a woman’s breasts in a parking lot.

Even after Kramer was convicted and sentenced to five months in prison, the results of the investigation remain closed to the public because of the clerks’ hold on sexual assault cases.

Under current Wisconsin law, victims have the right to redact their personal information from records; but Hintz claims this is not enough to protect the victims who are alleging sexual harassment or assault against legislative staff.

“Even with the redaction, there is speculation about other things — some of the victims don't want those details out there," Hintz told the Associated Press. “I think our policy first has been to protect those most impacted by the release of that information.”

Vos and Hintz held a mandatory training session on Tuesday to review the current sexual harassment policies with legislative staff in order to refresh them on the one-time training they received upon entry to their jobs.

Other types of government agencies in Wisconsin, such as the Equal Rights Division and the City of Milwaukee, release all investigative information for discriminatory and harassment claims against their employees. 

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