Current and former Montana legislative leaders revealed Friday that a previously unpublicized sexual harassment claim involving two unidentified state lawmakers helped a proposal gain traction to revamp the state’s harassment, discrimination and retaliation policy.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, made the revelation during a House Rules Committee hearing on proposed legislative rules that contain the policy.
“Let’s just be candid here,” Thomas told committee members. “There was an allegation a year or so ago, and while I don’t know the specifics about it, that’s what brought this forward to say we need to have more of a policy.”
After the meeting, Thomas said the harassment claim involved two lawmakers whom he did not identify, and said he did not know when it happened.
Legislative Services Division executive director Susan Fox said a formal complaint was made to the Legislature’s legal office after efforts to update the policy began in late 2017. She declined to answer questions about who was involved, the circumstances surrounding the complaint, whether the allegations were substantiated or whether anybody was disciplined.
Fox said she submitted the Associated Press’ request for information to a legal review.
Former House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, who co-wrote the proposed policy, confirmed that a sexual harassment allegation was made but also declined to provide details. Eck said Republican leaders who control both the state House and Senate initially resisted the policy but were more willing to consider it after the allegation was made.
“If you go back and look at the first committee meeting, the initial pushback was pretty big from leadership,” Eck said. “A couple months later, they were much more willing to consider it.”
Sexual misconduct allegations have been made against lawmakers in statehouse across the country. The AP has found that at least 90 state lawmakers have been publicly accused, resigned, forced from office or faced other repercussions since 2017.
Most of those cases came to light since the October 2017 media reports alleging sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a national movement of women coming forward with accounts of sexual assault or harassment against people in positions of power.
Montana lawmakers have been crafting a new policy for dealing with harassment, discrimination and retaliation for more than a year, as have other statehouses across the nation in response to the #MeToo movement.
Senate President Scott Sales and former House Speaker Austin Knudsen initially suggested a new policy was unnecessary because there hadn’t been any formal complaints under the existing rules.
“I think we have a great track record if we don’t have any official complaints,” Sales said in January 2018. “With the heightened visibility that the subject has, going forward I think there’s going to be less of this in the future. I think this is going to solve itself.”
Sales, R-Bozeman, ended up voting for the policy last year as a member of the Legislative Council and again when it passed the Senate last month.
The rules containing the policy also must pass the House, and the two sides must resolve any differences in versions they approve before it takes effect.
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