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Leaders aim to tune how allegations of legislator misbehavior are handled

Unprecedented member expulsion exposed ‘gap’

By Brayden Zenker

ND Newspaper Association

BISMARCK – The recent expulsion of former Rep. Luke Simons has party leaders discussing procedures to sanction members of the Legislature.

The response to allegations of sexual harassment and other misbehavior on Simons’ part exposed a gap in procedures to sanction members because no formal complaints were made against him. While the Legislature has procedures for dealing with formal complaints made against legislators, there is no clear sanctioning method to deal with misconduct without them.

“There isn’t a precedent because this hasn’t happened before,” said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington. “There seems to be this gap in between a problem arising and a formal complaint that we need to get figured out.”

Simons, a third-term Republican from Dickinson, lost his seat March 4 when the heavily Republican-majority House voted 69-25 to expel him. The action was taken after several accusations of sexual harassment surfaced, including by female members of the House. Simons denied having done anything wrong and charged that he was being attacked because of his conservative views.

Dori Hauck, of Richardton, was nominated by the District 36 Republican Party to replace Simons and was sworn in on March 16.

House Minority Leader Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, who joined Pollert in asking the House to expel Simons, said because no formal complaints were filed, Pollert didn’t have established authority to sanction Simons.

“Leaders, within our rules of the Legislature or individual chamber rules, don’t have any authority over our membership” in such situations, Boschee said.

The Legislative Procedure and Arrangement Committee, which acts as the body’s Ethics Committee, will be responsible for determining protocol for how to deal with such cases that may arise without formal complaints, Pollert said. He said the committee will continue to discuss the issue in the interim.

According to Boschee, a potential change to protocol could be keeping formal complaints confidential. Currently, formal complaints are made public after 25 days. Boschee said he thinks this was a factor preventing victims from filing complaints against Simons. According to Boschee, after testifying about Simons’ behavior during the floor vote, numerous female legislators received threatening emails and phone calls.

“These are women legislators who are in powerful positions that were treated completely inappropriately by some of our colleagues and the public,” Boschee said.

Pollert didn’t comment on any potential changes to protocol but urged the committee to take time to determine the best course of action. “We should not be doing a knee-jerk reaction to something as important as this,” Pollert said.

Along with raising questions about protocol, Simons’ removal also raises the question of how the culture of the Legislature may change.

Pollert said he hopes legislators will be more thoughtful about how they conduct themselves following Simons’ removal.

“We have to uphold ourselves to certain ways of conduct here that are appropriate,” Pollert said.

Boschee said there is more work to be done to change the culture within the Legislature, but leaders have made clear their stance on sexual harassment.

“We have now laid a flag down and said that we will not accept sexual harassment,” he said.

There has been resistance from some legislators, he said. “We need to figure out how do we as leaders make sure that behavior is not acceptable as well as empower all our members to be able to remind each other we are here to do an important job on the behalf of North Dakotans,” Boschee said. “We have some work to do. It has to be intentional, it’s not just going to happen.”