SANTA FE – With the Roundhouse reverberating from recent sexual misconduct allegations, a group of lawmakers on Friday unveiled a draft of proposed changes to the Legislature’s harassment policy that would set up a new process for filing complaints against sitting legislators.
However, some critics pointed out that such complaints would be handled in-house – via an internal committee – under a largely secretive process that’s already used for other types of ethics complaints, including allegations of lawmakers using their elected position to enrich themselves.
“I do not believe we should be policing ourselves,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, who has called for the Legislature to hire outside experts to investigate sexual harassment complaints.
The Friday meeting of the Legislative Council was the first public forum for legislators, lobbyists and advocates to weigh in on the Legislature’s “no harassment” policy since a spate of recent sexual harassment allegations ignited a discussion of policies, training and culture in the Roundhouse and in statehouses around the country.
Several lobbyists testified about negative experiences they’ve endured in Santa Fe.
Miranda Viscoli, who has pushed for legislation to tighten New Mexico’s gun ownership laws, said there is a “problem with the culture of this building,” though she described most legislators as honorable.
“There is no place to report (harassment claims) and the sad reality is it is political suicide if you do,” Viscoli said.
Another lobbyist, Vanessa Alarid, said it’s “imperative” that an individual or body with no ties to the Legislature be given the authority to investigate complaints against lawmakers.
Alarid, who is married to state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, recently went public with claims that former state Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocate, wanted sex in exchange for a “yes” vote on a high-profile 2009 bill she was lobbying for.
Garcia has flatly denied the allegations, but two other former legislators have said Alarid told them about the incident at the time.
The Legislature’s current “no harassment policy” has not been revised since 2008 and calls for complaints to be handled in-house by top legislative staffers. Complaints against legislators, lobbyists and other individuals are all treated the same under the policy.
Specifically, the existing 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, complaints should be directed to the head of a legislative agency.
But some lawmakers have pointed 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 an attempt to improve the policy, leading lawmakers recently appointed an eight-member working group to study other states’ policies and recommend potential changes. The group, which includes four senators and four representatives, met earlier this week and plans to meet at least one more time before lawmakers convene next month for the start of a 30-day legislative session.
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, a retired attorney and member of the working group, said it’s important from a transparency standpoint that all sexual harassment complaints be filed in one place.
“We need a central repository of all complaints,” Dines told the Journal.
He also said the working group has reached out to Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney who previously worked as the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, for advice on how to craft its new policy.
Public comments on the proposed changes to the Legislature’s harassment policy will be accepted through Jan. 8. A revised policy is then expected to be approved before next year’s session starts on Jan. 16.
Several New Mexico lawmakers – current and former – have come under scrutiny in recent weeks for alleged sexual misconduct.
In addition to the allegations against former representative Garcia, Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, recently dropped out of next year’s lieutenant governor’s race due to criticism about decade-old sexual harassment allegations that stem from a previous job.
Padilla has disputed the allegations, but Senate Democrats will discuss today whether to strip him of his leadership post.
In comments Friday, Padilla did not address the past allegations against him but said he’s worried about whether the Legislature is adequately staffed to handle future harassment complaints internally.
Meanwhile, Fajardo and other lawmakers voiced concern about how top legislative staffers have handled complaints in the past.
The Legislative Council Service, the Legislature’s administrative arm, recently refused to release records related to two sexual harassment complaints involving maintenance staff at the state Capitol, claiming the documents are exempt from disclosure under state law.
The recent sexual misconduct allegations have sparked dialogue and changes in other parts of state government, too.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver recently announced her office will offer voluntary sexual harassment training for lobbyists, and the state Democratic Party said Friday that it will require similar training for candidates.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during Friday’s hearing that women have endured “unacceptable” harassment and abuse in the Roundhouse and elsewhere.
“The policy that’s in place has flaws,” Egolf said. “We want to have a world-class policy that’s the gold standard … and we’re working to get it done as quickly as we can.”