Within 24 hours of Minnesota lawmakers adopting major changes to the House’s internal sexual harassment policy, that new policy is facing a big test.
On Thursday afternoon, the Star Tribune reported that a 23-year-old woman filed a police report accusing Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton of sexual assault. According to a St. Paul Police spokesman, on April 13 Hamilton allegedly invited the woman back to his apartment near the Capitol during a snowstorm and “stroked her hair, traced her ear with his finger, kissed her cheek and held her hands and hugged her.” The woman first met Hamilton through her work advocating for sexual assault victims in Minnesota.
In a statement, Hamilton “categorically” denied the accusations of sexual assault, but he said he informed the chamber’s human resources department of the report. The investigation is open but Hamilton has not been charged with a crime, according to police.
“In the interest of full transparency and cooperation, I have reported this incident to the House Human Resources Department,” said Hamilton, a representative from Mountain Lake who was first elected in 2004. “To date, I have not been contacted by law enforcement regarding these allegations, but I will cooperate fully with any investigation conducted either by law enforcement or the House Human Resources Department.”
The internal investigation will happen under the parameters laid out in the House’s new sexual harassment policy, which was adopted Wednesday afternoon after months of discussion between legislators, staff and employment law experts.
Hamilton is not the first legislator to be accused of sexual harassment in Minnesota: In December, Republican Rep. Tony Cornish and DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned over multiple allegations of harassment while they were in office.
Those allegations came out during the height of the #MeToo Movement, which saw thousands of women sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Hamilton’s case is the first to come out in the midst of session — and after #MeToo has gone from being reactive to proactive, with statehouses and industries adopting new policies and standards to try and prevent harassment or better deal with allegations in the future.
Hamilton’s case also deals with a major piece up for discussion in Minnesota: How does the chamber handle an incident that involves a third party: someone who doesn’t directly work for the House and Senate. That question was first raised in the cases involving Cornish and Schoen. Lobbyist Sarah Walker said Cornish propositioned her for sex more than three dozen times and cornered her during a meeting in his office. Lindsey Port was a DFL candidate when she said Schoen came up from behind and grabbed her at a campaign event.
The old House policy didn’t address what happens when a person who doesn’t work for the Legislature — like a constituent, candidate, lobbyist or members of the media — experienced sexual harassment. The new policy says that the House does not tolerate harassment of those individuals and specifies that they will investigate when they can. It also clarifies that the policy covers activities away from the Capitol complex “that involves legislative business.”
“The House of Representatives recognizes it has limited power to compel third parties to participate in investigations or discipline third parties for harassment and discrimination,” the new policy reads. “But, the House will investigation reports and complaints involving third parties to the best of its ability and will take reasonable action within its power to stop harassment and discrimination by or against members or employees in the course of their work with third parties.”
The new policy, however, doesn’t include a mechanism for anyone who does not have access to the House’s human resources department to report a claim of harassment. The woman in Hamilton’s case filed a report with the St. Paul Police.
“We have some work left to do in dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination at the Capitol for folks who don’t work here,” DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said earlier this week as the new policies were being rolled out. “We certainly did good work on the human resources policy, but we still don’t have a mechanism where a lobbyist or a member of the media or a constituent can lodge a complaint and have it investigated.”
The new policy also allows the House’s human resources department to hire an outside firm to investigate a sexual harassment complaint without approval from leadership. In the case of Cornish, the leaders approved an outside investigation, conducted by the firm NeuVest, which completed its work in February. But Cornish had already resigned by the time the firm completed its work in February and did not participate in the investigation. Only summary findings of that investigation were released to the public.
Hamilton has not said he plans to resign and will cooperate in the investigation. But it’s unclear if the human resources department will bring in outside help, or if the woman who accused Hamilton of sexual assault will be interviewed as part of the process. Even under the new policy, calls and emails to the human resources department regarding Hamilton were referred to a House Republican spokesperson.
The new policy also does not make any part of the process, from the initial complaint or investigation to discipline, open to the public. The findings of an outside investigation must be reported to leaders in both parties, but it does not require it to be released publicly under any circumstance.
One unchanged piece of the process is the role of the House Ethics Committee, a panel made up of equal members from both parties that’s charged with investigating misconduct in the chamber. A member of the House can still file an official complaint with the committee, which can decide whether the issue requires a public hearing on the matter. The committee does have the option to recommend a vote of expulsion from the Legislature, which would then require a two-thirds vote from the full House.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Thursday that legislators should open an official ethics investigation into the matter. “These allegations against Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton are deeply troubling,” he said in a statement. “Minnesotans deserve answers.”
For now, Hamilton has been suspended from his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Policy and Finance Committee while the House investigates the matter. Republican leaders did the same with Cornish, who was chair of the House Public Safety Committee before he resigned.
Hamilton, who spent hours in his St. Paul office with staff Thursday after the allegations surfaced, gave a single response to various questions from reporters: “At the advice of counsel, I’ve already issued my statement and there will be no further comment.”