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State government sexual harassment case review: 266 complaints, $710k in payouts, and one inconsistent system for investigating incidents

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Commissioner Myron Frans, center, led the administration’s review process.

Gov. Mark Dayton and top officials in his administration are proposing a new centralized office to handle sexual harassment cases, after a review of state government procedures showed an inconsistent system across the bureaucracy for investigating complaints.

In all, there have been a total of 266 complaints of sexual harassment across all Minnesota state government agencies since January 2011, 135 of which resulted in some kind of reprimand, according the a review of state agency complaints. Since the beginning of 2012, the state has also paid out a total of nearly $710,000 in seven taxpayer-funded settlements, either as part of court cases or mediation related to sexual harassment complaints, according to a public data requested by MinnPost and other agencies that was released Friday.

Officials found that how complaints were handled — from reprimands down to the process for investigation — ranged widely across the state’s 23 major state agencies, which include more than 32,000 state employees. Despite there being a statewide policy that covers all agencies, the review found some agencies were still following their own, separate rules for investigating complaints, and not every state worker had recently received training on sexual harassment in the workplace.

“These findings instruct that we must do even more to improve the quality of the state’s workplaces and to ensure that sexual harassment violations are treated consistently across all agencies,” Dayton said in a statement on Friday. “All state employees must be provided with the information, support, and protections they need to report acts of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

During the 2018 legislative session, which convenes on Feb. 20, Dayton said he will ask lawmakers to create a central administrative body within the executive branch that will be responsible for receiving complaints, investigating them in a timely manner and providing more consistency in how they are handled. The new office, plus additional sexual harassment training for all state employees, will come with a price tag for legislators to consider, though officials wouldn’t say how much that could cost.

The governor ordered the review of state agency policies late last year in the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment allegations within the world of Minnesota politics. Two state legislators — GOP Rep. Tony Cornish and DFL Sen. Dan Schoen — resigned in December in response sexual harassment allegations. A special election is scheduled for Feb. 12 to replace them.

Inconsistent discipline 

A report from MinnPost last year revealed that in 20 cases of substantiated sexual harassment from the last three years, there was no consistent direction across state agencies regarding what consitituted harassment or how it was punished, whether the sanctioned behavior earned a simple reprimand or a suspension, for example. In the documents released Friday, which covered cases between January 2011 and the end of 2017, many substantiated complaints were dealt with by reprimanding the offender with written and verbal warnings or short suspensions without pay.

In one case from 2016, in the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, an employee made comments about a female co-worker’s appearance and texted her that he had “needs” and was willing to pay her $50 for four hours a month. The female employee asked if he was trying to ask her for sexual favors, which he didn’t clarify. The male employee was given a warning and asked to not contact the female employee anymore.

In another case, an employee in the Department of Transportation told a woman: “I’m a road’s [sic] engineer and want to build roads through your wetlands and culturally sensitive sites.” He also told another female employee: “If you were a man and you were looking at the hill, what would you want to do? If you were a man with a big hose full of seeds, you would want to blast it at the hill.” He received a written reprimand.  

Another Department of Transportation employee was disciplined in January of 2017 for a long list of violations — including asking co-workers to help him with his “one-eyed willie,” grabbing a female co-worker’s buttocks, belittling co-workers’ intelligence, swearing at them and hitting them with a “wooden bat” on multiple occasions. He was suspended for one day on a Thursday and returned to work on a Friday.

In some cases, employees were fired. One of those was a 2015 case at the Minnesota Zoo in which a male superior repeatedly made comments about his female employee’s appearance and sexual advances via text message. One day at work, the supervisor called the woman into his office and pressed his body against hers while he had an erection. He was terminated from his job. 

In addition to creating a separate office to investigate seuxal harassment complaints, the reccomendations from the Dayton administration also include:

  • Expanding sexual harassment training in state agencies
  • Hiring and retaining women in more leadership positions, particularly in male-dominated agencies and fields
  • Expanding sexual harassment reporting options for employees, including possible creation of an external hotline
  • Updating the statewide sexual harassment policy to include clear responsibilities of state workers who who witness the sexual harassment
  • Requiring regular audits of how agencies are enforcing and complying with the state’s sexual harassment policies

“We are talking about changes that will affect the next administration. This is not about us, this is about the employees. The employees are here year after year, administration after administration, and we want to attract people to state service,” said Myron Frans, commissioner of Minnesota Management Budget, who led the administration’s review process. “We want them to come into state service, we want them to know that we are going to make progress and some changes to help enhance the state workforce and make it free from sexual harassment.” 

The monetary settlements mostly happened in court cases, but one was through negotiations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Details about the settlements were scant, as is common with such agreements, but they covered seven cases between 2015 and 2017, including a $180,000 settlement cases in the Department of Administration in 2017, and a $150,000 settlement with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs in 2017.

“We would like it to be zero. We really do want to make sure that our investigation process internaly of sexual complaints can deal with tese issues so people don’t have to go to court,” Frans said. “Those are places where the system didn’t work the way we would like it to work, and we have to be honest about that.” 

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/28/2018 - 07:49 am.

    Nothing tax payers like less than seeing

    their hard earned money being taken from them to pay for this garbage. If you fired anybody, who was a repeat offender, things would stop!! Paying the offended party (with our tax money) really doesn’t punish anyone but the tax payer. Government wasting our hard earned money, again!
    Two take always from this story. First, tax payers get screwed again (Big Government out of control with our money), second, firing a Government employee is damn near impossible.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/28/2018 - 12:15 pm.

    If You Think

    Big government is out of control with our money, the Pentagon must drive you absolutely nuts. Haven’t won a war in decades, and those generals never get fired.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 01/29/2018 - 08:24 am.

      Yep, Pentagon is out of control too.

      Their procurement process has become “social engineering “ thanks to political over site committees. Again wasting our money by making sure that each state gets their “pork”, 35% of bids have to go to minority owned businesses, antiquated military machinery (certain tanks & fighter planes) keep getting funded by congress because certain Senators and Congressmen have pull. The system is polluted by Big Government spending policies…..
      Sorry to inform you but the military is funded and run through the same Big Government folks who can’t balance a budget with over 4 Trillion of our hard earned money going to them yearly. So yes, I am upset with the funding of our military but not with our fighting men, they are the best in the world, by a long shot!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/28/2018 - 02:50 pm.

    The recommendations are disappointing

    There’s too much emphasis on “training”, which has been demonstrated to be largely ineffective. It looks like we need consistent discipline, not “training”. Who decides that a guy who hits employees with a wooden bat gets a one day suspension? You can “train” all you want but if people don’t see offenders dealt with appropriately the training is just an insult.

    I think we can go ahead and assume that these offenders aren’t acting out of ignorance, they’re acting with a sense of impunity. The best way to deal with a false sense of impunity is substantial and appropriate discipline. That discipline is the most effective “training” regime you could implement.

  4. Submitted by Langdon Alger on 01/29/2018 - 09:13 pm.

    Inconsistency is a code word for “protection”

    I am a retired state employee and saw first-hand how a situation was purposely kept quiet because the agency “didn’t want it to get in the papers.” The person I am talking about obtained employment fraudulently (documented that education credentials are false), and began a decades-long pattern of sexual predation and aggressive stalking, resulting in at least one arrest. The agency, rather than dismiss the employee, decided that they would “take care of it” by doing….nothing. The stalked employee quit. The predator is still employed and enjoys the protection of their manager.

    This has happened time and time again with this employee and the agency has done nothing, claiming that the employee is “mentally ill” or “there is nothing we can do about it.” Many staff and some managers have contacted the Governor’s Office and Administration. Nothing. Fraudulent employment, lack of performance, and sexual predation. Anyone else by now would have been fired long ago. This person will get a state pension for their efforts. Taxpayers are once again, getting duped of work hours and a retirement that should have gone to a qualified and productive employee.

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