A state representative alleged Thursday that House leadership has known about a toxic work environment rife with sexual harassment for months — protecting offending lawmakers rather than their victims.
“I am not alone in experiencing harassment at the Capitol,” said Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley.
Maye Quade’s statement came even as DFL Sen. Dan Schoen declined mounting calls to resign over sexual harassment allegations, including unwanted advances toward Maye Quade when she was a candidate for office.
But Maye Quade said Republicans were also engaged in improper conduct, including committee chairs, although she did not name them.
“Sexual harassment in the workplace, and at the Capitol, is bigger than one Senator,” said Maye Quade, in a statement Thursday.
“As a candidate, I experienced it with Schoen, as a legislator, I’ve experienced it by multiple members of the majority and reported it,” Maye Quade said.
Quade’s account contradicts a statement by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, that there have been no specific reports of harassment brought to him in his time as speaker.
Daudt reiterated his previous comments in a statement Thursday: “Minority Leader Melissa Hortman came to Majority Leader Joyce Peppin and me with general concerns about the work environment in the Minnesota House. However, I was not made aware of specific complaints and names of those responsible despite repeated requests for information,” he said.
Daudt continued: “If Hortman received a specific complaint, I urge her to follow our policy and immediately report it to human resources or our employment attorney. Had I received a specific complaint, I would have reported it as is required. I will continue to work with Hortman to ensure the Minnesota House is a safe and respectful work environment for members and employees.”
The conflict points to a widening harassment scandal — a scene happening in state capitols around the country — that could upend careers and change the culture at the Capitol.
Daudt has organized a mandatory harassment and discrimination training for legislators at the start of the 2018 session.
Hortman released a letter she sent Daudt in May that refers to at least one specific complaint about sexual harassment, but does not name anyone involved.
“I asked you to take immediate action to instruct your members on what is and what is not sexual harassment and to take steps to stop sexual harassment that is occurring,” reads the memo — marked “confidential.”
The Hortman memo continues: “I am happy to take directly parallel actions in my caucus to protect the identity of the complainant.”
Hortman’s profession is employment law.
Schoen, a first-term senator from St. Paul Park who previously served two terms in the House, is in the most immediate political jeopardy. He has not responded to attempts to reach him for comment after initially releasing a statement Wednesday night that he would not resign. A Senate DFL spokeswoman said Schoen has hired an attorney to deal with the ethics fallout.
Gov. Mark Dayton and a chorus of state political leaders, including many prominent DFLers, are demanding that he resign. And the Senate’s leader suggested he could face a possible Senate ethics inquiry into multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
“We have an ethics process in place that might need to be utilized if Sen. Schoen doesn’t resign,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Thursday. “This is clearly behavior that brings the Senate into disrepute.”
“This behavior cannot be tolerated in Minnesota’s workplaces or in our communities,” Dayton said in a statement.
Schoen is also a Cottage Grove police officer and paramedic. In response to the allegations, the Cottage Grove Police Department announced Thursday that Schoen has been assigned to administrative duties “until the allegations have been investigated by the state.”
The allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances to two fellow DFL candidates and others were first reported by MinnPost.
Schoen’s voice mail box was full Thursday, and he was not responding to texts. But his attorney, Paul Rogosheske, said Schoen denies and wrongdoing, and called Dayton’s statement seeking the senator’s resignation “extremely inappropriate,” adding, “[To] prejudge him without any facts or knowledge is wrong.”
“This is not the way American justice goes forward,” Rogosheske said. “My client is denying all these facts and we are not resigning. ... I know sexual allegations are exciting for the press, but my God, this isn’t a Harvey Weinstein deal where he raped someone. Any kind of abuse to a woman is terrible … but let’s let the criminal justice system work itself out, for crying out loud.”
Rogosheske said Schoen has done a “great job in the community.”
In his statement Wednesday night, Schoen said: “I am hurt by these allegations and take them seriously. I can honestly say they are either completely false or have been taken far out of context. It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone. I feel terrible that someone may have a different interpretation of an encounter, but that is the absolute truth. I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone.”
Despite Schoen’s denial, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the minority leader of Schoen’s caucus, said the first-term senator should resign, calling the allegations against him “sobering and disturbing.”
“I have discussed these allegations with my leadership team and we are united in our call for Sen. Dan Schoen to apologize, step aside, and seek care to address these actions,” Bakk said in a statement.
He was joined by several DFL candidates for governor, including Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. Two of the women to whom Schoen made alleged unwanted advances told Murphy about the incidents. Murphy told House leadership about one incident, while refraining from doing so in the other case at the request of the woman.
Murphy called Schoen’s actions “deplorable.”
“This abuse of power is harmful to women, to people, and contributes to a sick culture that we must change,” she said.
Lindsey Port spoke in a phone interview Wednesday about her encounters with Schoen when she was a first-time DFL House candidate from the Burnsville area in 2015.
Port said she went to a political meet-and-greet event in downtown Minneapolis with other elected officials and candidates. “Rep. Schoen was standing in the group with us,” Port said. “When I said I was door-knocking, he leaned back to look behind me and said, ‘I can tell if a candidate is doing good door-knocking by checking out their ass. And that looks like a good door-knocking ass.’ ”
Said Port, “I just froze. I didn’t know how to respond.”
A few minutes later, Port was waiting to meet Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was in town for a Democratic National Committee meeting in Minneapolis.
Port said Schoen then approached her.
“The representative came up behind me and grabbed my ass,” Port said. “He said, ‘Yep, yep. That’s a good door-knocking ass.”
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, was the caucus leader when Schoen was in the House. He released a statement early Thursday saying in 2015, House leadership received a report about improper behavior by Schoen. Thissen said he “immediately consulted with House staff on proper protocol and set up a meeting with Schoen. I explained the allegations that had been reported to House leadership staff. I made it clear that such conduct was unacceptable for a member of the House. I emphasized that such behavior must stop. No further incidents were communicated or reported to me or to House leadership staff. I also considered it important to respect the privacy of the individual who reported the behavior.”
Thissen said during his time as DFL caucus leader, another DFL lawmaker was alleged to have engaged in improper conduct, but he declined to name the legislator, citing confidentiality rules.
Susan Closmore, a spokeswoman for House Republicans, said legislators take harassment and discrimination training when they are elected. Staff are required to take harassment and discrimination training when they are hired and then every five years thereafter. Supervisors are required to take the training when they begin managing staff and then every five years thereafter.
The training, Closmore said, is conducted by an independent specialist who does not work for the House, a consultant with other clients including small and large businesses, health care organizations, school districts, colleges and universities, cities, counties, state agencies, religious institutions and nonprofit organizations.
The complaint process allows a person to report the discrimination or harassment to a wide range of people at the Capitol so as to prevent retribution, according to a House policy handbook given to new members and staff. Anyone receiving a complaint must then report it to the head of House human resources, a nonpartisan administrator.
According to the policy manual, resolution can include “an apology, direction to stop the offensive behavior, counseling or training, oral warning, written warning, transfer to another department, suspension with or without pay, or termination. Disciplinary action involving members of the House will be handled by House leadership or pursuant to the rules of the House.”
Star Tribune reporter Karen Zamora and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.