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North Dakota lawmakers float changes to harassment policy as rep's expulsion still looms

Prior to the expulsion of former Rep. Luke Simons over harassment allegations last year, leaders on both sides of the aisle said there were loopholes in the Legislature's harassment policy that could be ironed out.

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House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, right, speaks during a floor session in 2021 that ended with former Rep. Luke Simons being expelled from the House.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — North Dakota legislative leaders are considering ways to strengthen an internal workplace harassment policy that came under scrutiny after last year's allegations of sexual harassment by a lawmaker.

In March 2021, the state House of Representatives took the unprecedented action of expelling former Dickinson Rep. Luke Simons over allegations dating back to 2017 that he sexually harassed female colleagues and staffers.

Prior to the expulsion hearing, leaders on both sides of the aisle told Forum News Service there were loopholes in the Legislature's harassment policy that could be ironed out.

The interim Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee on Monday, June 27, weighed a series of options for bolstering the policy and better equipping leaders to handle harassment complaints.

The committee, which includes several powerful lawmakers, did not take any official action Monday and will likely take up the issue at a meeting later this year.

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What constitutes a complaint?

In the lead-up to Simons' expulsion, House leaders noted they had few options for disciplining their colleague despite a four-year pattern of bad behavior.

Most of the women reported the allegations of Simons' harassment to their supervisors behind closed doors and none submitted a formal complaint against the lawmaker.

PHOTO: Rep. Luke Simons
North Dakota Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, speaks at a hearing prior to his expulsion over sexual harassment accusations on March 4, 2021, in this file photo.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said at the time the absence of formal complaints against Simons meant leaders couldn't begin the process prescribed in the official harassment policy.

During Monday's discussion, House Speaker Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the policy should define what constitutes a complaint that sets off an investigation.

"We need to know what triggers the process," Koppelman said, noting that he thinks the policy is "not bad" overall.

Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said the policy may be too strict in what it considers a complaint, adding that the Legislature could be found liable in court for ignoring harassment whether the complaint is formal or informal.

Last year, Legislative Council Director John Bjornson wrote in a memo that Capitol staffers clearly have a “major reluctance” to file formal complaints against an offender because “they believe there is a lack of support from legislators for staff.”

Investigation and discipline

On Monday, members of the committee considered how complaints should be investigated and who should hand down discipline to lawmakers who violate the harassment policy.

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Under the current policy, majority and minority leaders in each chamber are charged with investigating claims of harassment brought by members of their caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he thinks lawmakers trust their leaders and the responsibility for hearing and investigating allegations should still go to the top.

However, Wardner noted that a handful of top lawmakers should undergo training on workplace harassment to be better equipped to deal with the issue. Pollert, who said he had never dealt with investigating a harassment accusation prior to the Simons case, noted he could have used some additional training.

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Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2020, in the North Dakota Capitol.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, floated the idea of the Ethics Commission investigating allegations of harassment from or against legislators.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said the Legislature could contract with an outside professional to investigate complaints.

Both Klein and Boschee noted that politics and personal relationships inevitably play a role when leaders must investigate members of their own caucus, so delegating that role to an independent entity would be beneficial.

Hogan, who used to work in human resources, said creating an avenue for a third party to investigate a complaint would prevent conflicts of interest with leaders and protect lawmakers and staffers alleging harassment from retaliation.

Nearly all members of the committee agreed the authority to discipline lawmakers who violate the harassment policy should remain with the Legislature.

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Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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