Guard Against Abuse in W.Va.
One day in mid-December, while many in his family were making preparations for Christmas, Kentucky House of Representatives member Dan Johnson left his home and drove to a secluded area near Mount Washington, Ky. There, he got out of his car and shot himself to death.
Johnson left behind a note denying allegations that, years before, he had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl.
For months, allegations of sexual misbehavior ranging from harassment to assault have rocked Congress and the entertainment world. They have forced some U.S. representatives and one senator out of office.
But this is not just a national problem. It can affect public officials at the state level, too.
Kentucky is not the only state where allegations of sexual harassment and/or assault have been in the news. Last fall, they prompted a formerly powerful Ohio legislator, state Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, to resign. He had been accused of repeatedly asking a legislative employee for sex.
In Pennsylvania, women of the state House and Senate joined in mid-December to introduce bills to give women in the workplace greater protection against harassment. One cited “recent stories from around the country and right here in the Pennsylvania Legislature …” No specifics were offered.
Virginia lawmakers insist they have received no complaints about harassment since 2015. But in that year and 2012, there were two allegations from the House of Delegates.
In Maryland, though no accusations involving legislators have been reported, lawmakers plan to take up new measures to update their in-house sexual harassment policy.
In every state adjoining ours, sexual harassment involving legislators and other state employees has occurred during recent years. Some lawmaking bodies are updating their harassment policies.
Fortunately, West Virginia legislators have not adopted an “it can’t happen here” mentality. In December, they gathered for an in-depth review of harassment policies.
At first glance, the rules for legislators and their staffs appear to be adequate. They mirror many private-sector policies that ban any harassment that results in a hostile workplace. They prohibit retaliation of any kind against those who complain.
But the legislators’ review disclosed a weak spot. Clearly, as some lawmakers suggested, state employees need better training on what behavior is unacceptable.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and it is shocking what people do at work and what they think they can get away with,” legislators were told by Tom Kleeh, who serves as a per diem attorney for the state Senate.
A New Year priority for officials — including legislators and Gov. Jim Justice — should be to ensure that everyone in state government understands there are limits to workplace behavior, and that failing to stay within them will bring swift, decisive, public corrective action.