The Mississippi Senate lacks standardized measures to handle sexual harassment allegations, and training for handling such claims has not been mandated, even after the House suffered the resignation of Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, amid allegations that he violated codes of conduct.
Moore stepped down in mid-December, the same time it became clear the House of Representatives Ethics Committee was set to begin an investigation of sexual harassment claims against him. Moore cited health reasons and denied prior knowledge of the sexual harassment claims.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn confirmed that a probe would have been ordered had Moore not resigned.
“Mr. Moore had a choice. He could retire or we could ensue with an investigation,” Gunn in an interview with students of the University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism & New Media. “Because of his retirement, the investigation was no longer necessary. So I don’t know how that would have turned out.”
When approached about protocol for addressing sexual harassment, members of the Mississippi Senate gave differing answers, and at least one senator did not know how his chamber would handle such claims.
Moore stepped down Dec. 8. According to Mississippi Today, he claimed he had no prior knowledge of the sexual harassment allegations. He said in an interview with The Clarion Ledger he was “blindsided” when hearing of the allegations after he had resigned.
Gunn acknowledged the existence of the claims against Moore but has not revealed any details, and some of Moore’s fellow legislators said they are uninformed about the details.
“None of us know what the actual allegations were and quite frankly I am not sure I want to know,” said Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, a friend of Moore’s.
Moore had heart bypass surgery early in 2017, according to the Associated Press.
In the past year, at least 14 legislators in 10 states have resigned from office following accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct, AP found. At least 16 others in more than a dozen states have faced other repercussions, such as the voluntary or forced removal from legislative leadership positions.
According to Gunn, the Moore investigation would have been conducted by members of the House Ethics Committee, all of whom did not respond to a request for an interview.
“I think it would work kind of like a court case,” said Currie. “They would talk to both sides, look at the evidence, and make a decision.”
The House issued a policy statement in 2013 to help combat discrimination and harassment. The statement outlines the chamber’s definition of sexual harassment and mandates that corrective action be taken if the policy is violated.
The AP found that in three-fourths of the states, at least one legislative chamber has recently updated its sexual harassment policy, has specific proposals to do so, or has undertaken a review about whether changes are needed.
The Mississippi Senate is not one of those chambers, and protocol there for addressing sexual harassment issues is a mystery to some.
“I figure it would be handled the same way but I don’t really know,” said Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont.
“Any report of sexual harassment would certainly go to through the Lieutenant Governor’s office,” said Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven.
The Lieutenant Governor’s office gave mixed responses when asked about the process.
“Senator Burton, chairman of the Rules Committee, would address these issues, ” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said when asked how he would have handled a situation in the Senate similar to Representative John Moore’s.
Reeves’s Director of Communication Laura Hipp, when asked if the Senate has anything similar to the House’s harassment policy, referred only to efforts the chamber has made this year to educate members about sexual harassment, rather than any existing procedures for handling claims.
“The Senate and the House each govern themselves. The Rules Committee has mandated training for staff and it is also recommended for senators to take,” Hipp said.
President Pro Tempore of the Senate Terry Burton, R-Newton, the Rules Committee Chairman, explained how he would proceed with an investigation, noting, “It’s hard to say, since this is all conjecture.”
First, Burton explained, they would take “a good hard look at it” and “probably suggest that some action be taken by members of the Senate Ethics Committee.” Members of that committee, like their House counterparts, did not respond to interview requests.
“If we found something to be factual enough we would suggest that the individual go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to be handled,” Burton said.
The EEOC website suggests workers file a claim individually with them only “if no corrective action is taken” by their superiors first.
When asked if the Senate Rules Committee would have gone through with an investigation even after an accused senator has resigned, similar to Moore’s situation, Burton said “it would depend on the strength of the allegations” to “justify further investigation.”
Recommended, Not Mandated, Sexual Harassment Training
Burton and the Rules Committee sent an email the first week of the 2018 legislative session which recommended senators watch a 30-minute sexual harassment training video. This was the same video all state employees were mandated to watch under Gov. Phil Bryant’s Executive Order 1392 more than a year ago.
“We really have not received any training,” Sen. Wilemon said in the second week of the session. “I haven’t seen the video yet.”
“I think that’s a very positive step,” Sen. Doty said, referring to the recommended video. She said she also has yet to watch it.
The recommendation leaves it up to senators individually to watch the video, and no measures are in place to ensure the training is completed.
“I don’t have the authority to mandate that they do anything, “ Burton said. “These individuals are elected autonomously.”
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced in November anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training would be required for all elected members and staff.
In the Mississippi House, legislators received training in the chamber floor for over an hour on Jan. 4. The session was mandatory for all members, according to Currie, and was led by lawyer Timothy Lindsay. Lindsay was designated to investigate Moore’s case before he resigned.
“It was pretty basic training,” Currie said. “What can come up legally, what may be insulting that you’re unaware of. Things like not forwarding inappropriate emails or saying something offhand.”
Some members of Mississippi’s Legislature described a challenging work environment for women, while one veteran male legislator denied the existence of sexual harassment in his chamber.
“Some of the older gentlemen, you know, will give you a “honey” every now-and-then. You just have to handle it,” Doty said. “I handle it usually with joking and going right back at them.”
“You have to demand the respect,” Currie said. “This has been a man’s world for a long time and it still remains to be.”
Burton described the working environment differently. “[I’ve] been in the Senate for 27 years and we’ve never had a complaint. I don’t think that [sexual harassment] is happening,” he said.
“It happens here, and it happens in Hollywood, so it’s happening in your local Walmart. It’s happening everywhere,” Currie said.
A Legislative Approach to Settlements
Though progress on policy and awareness of sexual harassment has been mixed, some legislators are directly addressing the issue of who would be responsible for monetary settlements with accusers and victims.
After a few weeks in session, Mississippi lawmakers have introduced almost 1,000 bills in the House and more than 300 in the Senate. One of those bills is Currie’s House Bill 417. Currie filed this piece of sexual harassment legislation last year but it did not progress. She said she feels it has a good chance this time around.
HB 417 is in reaction to two sexual harassment lawsuits against the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics which were settled for $25,000 and $75,000, both on the state government’s tab.
“My bill simply states if you are convicted of sexual harassment then the taxpayers aren’t going to foot your bill. You’re going to foot it yourself,” Currie said. Gov. Bryant’s Executive Order 1392 was also in response to these specific lawsuits.
Currie’s bill mirrors U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper’s similar efforts in Washington in reforming the Congressional Accountability Act. According to the New York Times, the U.S. House of Representatives paid $115,000 to settle three sexual harassment claims between 2008 and 2012. Harper and Currie both want to hold guilty members personally accountable when settling claims of sexual harassment.
“It’s not our responsibility as taxpayers to enable you to have inappropriate behavior,” Currie said.