Sexual Harassment Investigations Are Kept Secret in Wisconsin, and That's How Lawmakers Want It.
By Jason Stein and Mary Spicuzza
The top Republican and Democrat in the Wisconsin Assembly Tuesday vowed to ensure there would be no sexual harassment in their house but said they would always oppose releasing the results of investigations into such allegations.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has sought the results of a still unreleased investigation into the conduct of former Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer, a Republican who in 2014 was convicted of two misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree sexual assault.
Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk has already denied an open records request by the Journal Sentinel for the results of personnel investigations in the Senate.
The news drew a sharp rebuttal Tuesday from Indiana University law professor Jennifer Drobac, who has written a textbook on sexual harassment law and taught a course on the subject. Drobac said that keeping such findings secret "puts more women at risk" from powerful abusers.
"It makes women vulnerable when we keep these ... histories secret," Drobac said. "Sunlight is still the best disinfectant."
Erin Forrest, executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, said she found the refusal to release information about complaints "a little disingenuous."
"Protecting the rights of victims in these cases is really important, and I think that there's also a very legitimate public interest in knowing about these types of really power-abusing behaviors in elected officials," said Forrest, whose group seeks to help female Democrats run for office. "If the goal was to protect victims and the public, I think that there's a way to do that."
The practice in the Legislature differs with some other government agencies in Wisconsin.
For instance, the state Equal Rights Division releases personnel complaints and investigations about discrimination, including a 2016 case that involved Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and an employee with a disability claim. The City of Milwaukee also releases completed personnel investigations in certain cases after notifying the affected employees, said Maria Monteagudo, the city's director of employee relations.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said he wanted to keep the reports secret because releasing an investigation might reveal the identity of a victim or witness even if that person's name and identifying information were redacted.
"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," he said.
Vos said he wasn't aware of any settlements paid to victims for misconduct in the Assembly.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said there was no justification for always hiding any findings of misconduct by public officials and employees. Lueders noted that in some cases a victim might even support the release of the records.
"They're wrong on this. These records should not be secret. There is a clear public interest in access to these records," Lueders said of the lawmakers.
In Congress, members of both parties have called for changing the confidential manner in which misconduct claims are handled and to unmask lawmakers such as Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan who have had taxpayer settlements paid out.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) agreed with keeping Wisconsin personnel investigations secret in all cases.
"Some of the victims may not want those details out there. I think our policy first has been to protect those most impacted by the release of that information," Hintz said.
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) had no comment about whether they supported keeping such records secret in all cases.
On Tuesday, the Assembly held a training session on the existing sexual harassment policies in that house and the system in place to investigate complaints. That session was not open to the news media.
Vos said he was serious about preventing bad behavior, noting that Republicans who control his house had stripped Kramer of his leadership post in 2014 after he was accused of sexual misconduct.
At the time, Assembly officials said they couldn't release an internal investigation into Kramer's conduct because it was not yet completed. But the report was never released and Vos said Tuesday that it would not be going forward.
Both the Senate and Assembly chief clerks have denied similar open records requests for the results of personnel investigations by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Legislative leaders have the ability to discipline or fire employees for misconduct in their jobs. The two houses can also vote to discipline or expel elected legislators, but it's rare.
Kramer, for instance, did not run for re-election. But he was allowed to serve out his term and keep drawing a salary.
(c)2017 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel