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

Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the review of state agency policies in the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment allegations last year. 

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

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. 

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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.

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“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.”