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Cornish investigation highlights difficulty of dealing with sexual harassment complaints against Minnesota lawmakers

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Rep. Tony Cornish resigned from his seat in December amid sexual harassment allegations.

An independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against former Republican Rep. Tony Cornish revealed the challenge state officials face in handling allegations against sitting legislators — as well as the difficulty officials have in dealing with complaints from lobbyists or other people who work at the Capitol, where some lawmakers often disregard the inherent power imbalances between themselves and almost everyone else in the building.

That’s according to key takeaways from the investigation, conducted by employment firm NeuVest. The firm started the investigation last fall after lobbyist Sarah Walker said Cornish repeatedly propositioned and harassed her as she tried to talk to him about issues she was working on. Cornish, who was first elected to represent a rural southeastern Minnesota district in 2002, ultimately resigned from his seat in December and declined to be interviewed in the investigation. 

NeuVest submitted the report to lawmakers in the first week of session, but they didn’t release the company’s key findings until reporters inquired about the investigation this week.

The full report was not made public because of privacy concerns, top House leaders said Thursday. “In light of privacy concerns for those participating in the process and the potential chilling effect on future reports, we agreed the summary report and interview summaries will not be distributed publicly,” read a joint statement from Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Majority Leader Joyce Peppin and DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman.

Everyone interviewed in the investigation, according to the publicly released takeaways, noted the challenges in enforcing the House’s sexual harassment policy when the alleged harasser is an elected official. According to the policy, staff members can be reprimanded, suspended or even fired, but complaints against elected officials must be handled by leadership. Even then, if a claim is substantiated, there are few options to punish a legislator, other than stripping them of some leadership duties. A member of the House or Senate cannot be forced to resign but could face an ethics committee process and a vote of expulsion, which takes a two-thirds majority their respective chamber.

“Suggestions included additional training for staff and annual, mandatory training for House members. In addition to sexual harassment training, it was suggested that more explicit expectations for maintaining a professional workplace environment should be addressed,” reported NeuVest, which also conducts sexual harassment training in workplaces. “It was noted that complaints involving elected officials should be investigated by a neutral third-party. Finally, it was suggested that an ombudsperson might allow more anonymity.” 

But even those changes can be challenging in an environment like the Capitol, where power imbalances between legislators, staff and lobbyists are practically baked into the system. NeuVest found that “some House members lack sufficient appreciation for, or choose to disregard, the power imbalance between members, on the one hand, and legislative staff, lobbyists, and others who work in and around the capitol, on the other,” the summary read. 

“The report further indicates a concern that this problem can be exacerbated when a member pursues a dating or sexual relationship at the capitol or with any of the individuals subject to the power imbalance.”

The report summary noted other flaws with the Legislature’s handling of sexual harassment. In particular, there’s no process in place to receive or investigate complaints from lobbyists, vendors or other third parties who are technically not on staff but still spend their days in the Capitol. The House has no power to compel those individuals to even participate in an investigation, which can “undercut the thoroughness and accuracy.”

The House and Senate are also governed by separate sexual harassment policies, which can create “silos” in communication and investigations. And there’s the perception among those interviewed that legislative members are generally not punished by anyone in instances of sexual harassment. Top leaders will not report how many sexual harassment complaints they’ve received or the outcome of any investigations.

The firm conducted interviews “with a number of potential witnesses,” according to the takeaways, including anyone who was thought to have knowledge of Cornish’s actions or any reports made to members or staff about him. The investigation, which was conducted between November and February, cost the state more than $30,000.

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Comments (7)

Privacy???

They work for us, whatever illegal or slimy things they have done while being a public servant should see the light of day. Protect the accuser, but expose the politicians.

Yes

Too many elected officials assume they are entitled to their office. They need to remember they work for us, and it is a privilege to do so.

No Transparency

Hi Briana - I commend you for even turning this into a story.

When I read the Press Release, I was thinking, "Now how the hell is this going to turn into news", except for one notable issue, it completely lacks transparency.

Apparently Speaker Duadt felt it best to refer this issue to, "non-partisan House Counsel", lawyers.

"To make the best use of the investigation report – working toward eliminating harassment and discrimination from the House – Speaker Daudt asked nonpartisan House Counsel to provide key takeaways from their review of the report and interview summaries in order to improve House policy and processes in the future." - House Press Release

The report basically states what you outlined and next to NOTHING about the specific investigation, complaints or former Representative Cornish's response.

I think the public should know the nature of the harassment, Cornish's response and what if any disciplinary actions were taken. After that you can tell the public how you're going to change the culture and the process so people feel they can report these things when they happen.

This is a sexual harassment policy?

To paraphrase or "break-out" this piece's description of the sexual harassment policy of the House of Representatives (and Senate?) of the State of Minnesota:

When the alleged harasser is an Elected Official:

1) Staff members may be reprimanded, suspended or fired.

2) No complaints of sexual harassment shall be accepted or acknowledged if presented by any individual employed as a legislative lobbyist, vendor or employee or representative of any other third parties or any other human being who is not technically on staff but still spends time in the Capitol.

3) Elected Officials shall have no authority to compel any individual described in paragraph 2) to participate in any investigation of, or provide testimony regarding, any sexual harassment complaint related to any Elected Official or legislative staff member.

4) Complaints against Elected Officials must be handled by respective Chamber Leadership.

If a claim of sexual harassment is substantiated, a member of the House or Senate:

1) May be relieved of some leadership duties.

2) Shall not be forced to resign.

3) May face an ethics committee process.

4) May face a vote of expulsion.

5) May be expelled if a two-thirds majority of their respective Chamber so votes.

When was this "sexual harassment policy" put together and who put it together?

Not to be presumptuous, but could it have been put together (or overseen and approved) by members of the House and Senate, the majority of whom were men?

Why is this "sexual harassment policy" still in place?

Nothing against NeuVest, but with a sexual harassment policy like that, why is it necessary for taxpayers to pay an outside firm $30,000 (and whatever it costs in terms of nonpartisan House Counsel time spent) to "identify problems," "key takeaways" and "make recommendations" regarding "possible improvements" when our elected officials claim to be intelligent enough to handle the people's business by writing and finding ways to reach enough consensus to change our state's laws (may of which are so complex that no normal human being can understand them)?

Are those elected officials incapable of identifying the problems associated with the existing sexual harassment policy and making improvements to it that are acceptable to all concerned, inside and outside the legislature?

Are they incapable of figuring out what a better, more comprehensive and up-to-date sexual harassment policy would consist of?

If so they may want to consider consulting with any of our state's businesses or non-profit organizations whose male and female employees feel have implemented sexual harassment policies and processes they understand, see as fair and feel good about.

Or, if doing that kind of thing is too much, maybe they should think about moving on to a less challenging line of work.

Why is this such murky and snail's pace rocket science?

And I agree with Joe (Smith) and Martin (Owens): While the privacy of any of those who were being harassed ought to be protected, the way in which the privacy concerns of the harassers is being "handled by respective Chamber Leadership" appears to have a lot more to do with election year political concerns and wallpapering than anything else.

Whose privacy?

Blanket privacy claims, which appear to have been made here, should never be accepted without further digging – a lot more digging.. Privacy rights in these cases are meant to protect the injured person making the claim – not the perpetrator and not leaders like Mr. Daudt and Ms. Peppin.

The privacy “concerns” of anyone other than the accuser are of no concern, especially when the claim is made by political leaders and especially when the claim results in a failure to fully disclose to the public information about a former senior member of the legislature and a member of their party.

Far too often, those in power use “privacy” as a blanket excuse for hiding facts the public has a right to know about. If the accuser specifically has asked that some specified information be withheld to protect that person’s privacy, assuming the withholding is allowed by open records laws, the request, of course, must be honored. But if the accuser wants the information made public, it should be disclosed fully and promptly.

A claim of “privacy concerns” is the beginning of an investigation by the press and others, not the end of it.

Whose privacy?

Blanket privacy claims, which appear to have been made here, should never be accepted without further digging – a lot more digging.. Privacy rights in these cases are meant to protect the injured person making the claim – not the perpetrator and not leaders like Mr. Daudt and Ms. Peppin.
The privacy “concerns” of anyone other than the accuser are of no concern, especially when the claim is made by political leaders and especially when the claim results in a failure to fully disclose to the public relevant information about a former senior member of the legislature and a member of their party.
Far too often, those in power use “privacy” as a blanket excuse for hiding facts the public has a right to know about. If the accuser specifically has asked that some specified information be withheld to protect that person’s privacy, assuming the withholding is allowed by open records laws, the request, of course, must be honored. But if the accuser wants the information made public, it should be disclosed fully and promptly.
A claim of “privacy concerns” is the beginning of an investigation by the press and others, not the end of it.

I get your point, but

There are some unacknowledged assumptions in this discussion. As far as I know, what's been alleged here is not a crime - at least not today. So in a legal sense there's no "injured" party, no "claim", no "accusations". I don't see that the public has any "right to know" what happened.

It's one person alleging that another acted like a total jerk - or worse - but it's not a criminal matter. The fact that an officeholder is involved doesn't change anything. But in the coverage, we seem to be drifting into the mindset that laws have been broken, evidence is being concealed, and testimony can be compelled.

People can be jerks, in lots of ways. We're focusing on one issue of bad behavior and trying to elevate to the level of a crime by "acclamation". It doesn't work that way, laws would have to be passed first.