ND lawmakers refine Capitol harassment policy

BISMARCK (AP) — The Legislature’s research arm has refined a proposed policy regarding workplace and sexual harassment in North Dakota’s Capitol, expanding the list of legislative leaders designated to field complaints, more clearly outlining potential punishments and adding a training component.
The updated proposal was presented Wednesday to the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, which hopes to finalize a policy in September so it’s in place for the 2019 Legislature’s organizational session in December.
Legislative leaders have said they aren’t aware of any sexual harassment allegations in the Capitol. However, they decided late last year to update the existing two-paragraph state policy that bars harassment but provides no process for the formal reporting of complaints. The decision followed a wave of complaints in the political and entertainment worlds amid the #MeToo movement against sexual violence and workplace harassment.
The policy being created is for all forms of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment and harassment based on such things as race or religion. The initial proposal unveiled in March established procedures for handling and resolving complaints, but committee members noted several perceived shortcomings related to who would field and handle cases, and how violations would be punished.
The updated proposal outlined Wednesday by Legislative Council Legal Division Director John Bjornson includes House and Senate minority leaders as people who could field complaints, along with the previously identified majority leaders of the two chambers. They also could designate a person of the opposite sex who could take complaints.
“It isn’t that any one of us in leadership really wants to be judge and jury, but it’s our responsibility to make sure that our ship is run right,” House Republican Majority Leader Al Carlson said.
Under the revisions, a panel of lawmakers would review a complaint, rather than just the person who fielded it. The panel would include people selected by the majority and minority leaders of each chamber, and a fifth person selected by the four appointed members. They also could send a case to an independent investigator.
The new draft also specifies a range of punishments for lawmakers found to have committed harassment, from an apology to expulsion, and for third parties such as reporters or lobbyists, from an apology to elimination of access to legislative committee rooms and chambers. There is no change to disciplinary action for legislative employees, which ranges from an apology to termination.
Referral for criminal prosecution also is listed as a potential punishment for all three categories. Democratic Rep. Kathy Hogan lobbied for a provision under which an allegation that’s potentially criminal in nature would be immediately referred to law enforcement.
“If it’s an allegation of a criminal activity, we have to get ourselves out of it as quickly as possible,” she said.