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

The full report into state Rep. Tony Cornish would not be made public because of privacy concerns, top House leaders said Thursday. 

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

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.

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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.