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Legislature’s policy on harassment in the spotlight

The Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment was last updated in 2008, and many lawmakers say it’s time to strengthen the policy and require training for lobbyists, legislators and staffers. (Photo Illustration by Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For years, the New Mexico Roundhouse has been a minefield of inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, leering looks and sexual propositions, multiple female lobbyists and legislators say.

With many lawmakers temporarily away from their families during politically charged legislative sessions, women describe a long-standing culture of sexual harassment and misconduct that can make the Capitol feel like a seedy spring break spot.

“When the opportunity presents itself, the pervasive culture of ‘Can I get away with it?’ is still rampant,” said Heather Ferguson, who has lobbied at the Roundhouse since 2007 and is currently the legislative director for Common Cause New Mexico.

Among the behaviors described to the Journal in interviews with more than a dozen lobbyists, legislators and staffers are:

• Quid pro quo propositions in which legislators offer political support to lobbyists in exchange for sexual favors.

• Inappropriate text messages sent by lawmakers to young female lobbyists.

• A whisper system in which female lobbyists share information about male legislators known to be serial harassers.

Now, after numerous sexual misconduct claims being levied against politicians, media figures and others in New Mexico and nationwide, there’s a renewed push to update the Legislature’s harassment policy – which has not been revised since 2008 – and require training for lobbyists, legislators and staffers alike.

Some say it’s long overdue.

“I would say 10 percent of the people are causing 90 percent of the problems,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, who drafted a letter recently to legislative leaders that called the current complaint procedure in the Legislature’s harassment policy a “joke.”

She also said the number of stories she’s received from other women about being on the receiving end of inappropriate conduct at the state Capitol had tripled in just a week since she sent the letter.

Former state Rep. Stephanie Maez, an Albuquerque Democrat, said the nature of the Legislature – long hours, little family time and lavish dinners hosted by special interest groups – creates a “recipe for misconduct.”

“I think in the past it’s been overlooked or people have been afraid to come forward,” she said. “For so long, I think women just felt like they had to deal with it.”

The Legislature’s current “no harassment policy” calls for complaints to be handled in-house.

Specifically, the policy encourages those who are harassed or who witness offensive behavior to approach the perpetrator and request that it stop. If they’re not comfortable doing that, it says that complaints be directed to the head of a legislative agency.

But some lawmakers point out that those agency directors can be hired and fired by top legislative panels, which could make it tricky for them to investigate allegations involving legislators.

In addition, the policy’s stern warning about the consequences of filing false reports – legislative staffers can be fired for such an offense – has a chilling effect of sorts, Fajardo says.

“I feel the current policy has erred too far on the side of complaint deterrence, and it discourages individuals from raising genuine issues of harassment for fear of being penalized should the powers-that-be decide no harassment took place,” she wrote in her letter to legislative leaders.

The current policy defines sexual harassment as a form of discrimination that can be verbal, nonverbal or physical in nature. It also states that confidentiality will be respected to the “greatest extent possible” when complaints are filed.

In response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the Legislative Council Service told the Journal on Friday that just two formal sexual harassment complaints have been lodged since 2013.

Both of those incidents involved Capitol maintenance staffers, not lawmakers, said Raúl Burciaga, the agency’s director.

The push to update the Legislature’s no harassment policy has been broad and bipartisan – at least so far.

Just days after Fajardo sent her letter to legislative leaders, a coalition of nine nonprofit groups released a petition calling for similar changes to the existing policy, and mandatory training on the issue for all lawmakers and legislative staffers.

Top-ranking legislators have signaled they’re now listening – after years of little apparent attention being paid to the issue.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told the Journal all legislators will be asked to attend sexual harassment training from a national group on Jan. 15, the day before next year’s 30-day session officially begins. That would mark the first time since 2004 such training has been offered to lawmakers.

And he and other House and Senate leaders said this week they intend to assemble a group of legislators to work with attorneys to review the harassment policy and suggest changes that could be adopted in January. Recommendations are expected to be presented to legislative leaders later this month.

“My hope is that this effort doesn’t just result in a policy change, but in a cultural change at the Roundhouse,” Egolf said. “If we want our state to be safe and inclusive, then we must make the halls of the Roundhouse safe and inclusive for all who work or visit there.”

One change could involve hiring an outside expert to review and investigate sexual harassment and misconduct complaints. It would then be up to a legislative panel to act on any recommendation from the outside expert.

In addition, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver recently announced that her office will offer voluntary sexual harassment training for lobbyists, calling the plan a “first step” toward preventing sexual misconduct.

The recent national firestorm about sexual misconduct has already fanned the flames of past incidents in New Mexico.

Most prominently, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham and other women have called on Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, to drop his 2018 lieutenant governor campaign due to decade-old sexual harassment allegations.

Padilla has long denied the allegations, which stem from his tenure helping the city of Albuquerque overhaul its emergency call center. The city ended up settling “sexually hostile work environment” claims stemming from Padilla’s six-week tenure as a supervisor. Two women settled for $149,000; a third won a federal civil rights lawsuit and the city paid $1,200 to cover her counseling costs and $101,000 in legal fees.

Meanwhile, former Department of Game and Fish Director Jim Lane resigned in 2013 after Gov. Susana Martinez’s office received a letter accusing Lane of making repeated sexual overtures to the human resources director for the agency he headed.

The state eventually paid $65,000 to settle the woman’s claims.

Although no formal sexual harassment complaints have been filed against acting legislators in recent years, there have been claims of wrongdoing.

An outgoing legislative branch official alleged in an email sent to his boss last year that Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, had sexually harassed a staffer with a national nonprofit group.

Sapien called the claims a “fabrication,” and suggested he and the former legislative branch official had a contentious working relationship.

The Legislative Council Service said last year that it had no record of any official correspondence being sent in response to the claim.

Some Roundhouse insiders say the building’s culture has begun to change in recent years and that sexual harassment is not as egregious as it once was.

While male lawmakers still outnumber their female counterparts – just 34 out of 112 New Mexico lawmakers are women – there is less of a “good old boy” system in place than in the past, some lobbyists and legislators say.

Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, said that she’s heard numerous stories from other women about sexual harassment at the state Capitol, but that she believes the culture has improved in recent years, in part due to an increase of transparency brought about by cellphone videos and legislative webcasting.

“I think this will hopefully open up a dialogue about what has happened at the Roundhouse for a very long time,” she said of the recent groundswell of allegations about sexual impropriety.

However, some longtime Capitol insiders say getting rid of sexual harassment won’t happen overnight.

They refer to a dynamic in which young female lobbyists are placed in the awkward position of trying to drum up support for legislation while simultaneously fending off advances and off-color jokes from lawmakers.

That dynamic can also make filing complaints a delicate matter.

“I think at no point in time would I have ever felt I could say something without putting my career in jeopardy, and I know others have felt the same,” lobbyist Ferguson told the Journal.

Viki Harrison, a veteran lobbyist who led the campaign to repeal New Mexico’s death penalty in 2009 and pushed for a ban on cockfighting, said there should be signs in all Roundhouse restrooms – both for men and women – detailing the steps to report sexual harassment.

But she also said an improved policy and more training won’t automatically fix the issue.

“We can have policies all day long, but if we as human beings don’t call it out every time we see it, you can have as many policies as you want and it’s not going to change,” Harrison said.

Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.