At a store called the Liquor Pig in St. Cloud, an employee said she endured her boss’s inappropriate touching and demands for sex. A supervisor at the Jack Link’s Beef Jerky plant in Mankato reportedly harassed a female worker until she quit. Female students at Hibbing High School squirmed as a school administrator allegedly quizzed them about their sex lives.
In each of those cases over the past several years, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights stepped in to declare this behavior a violation of state law. The settlements reached in these cases are a matter of public record.
Don’t expect the same candor when this behavior takes place among Minnesota legislators.
Allegations of sexual harassment and assault have rocked statehouses and unseated legislators across the nation, including DFL Sen. Dan Schoen and GOP Rep. Tony Cornish in Minnesota last month. From the U.S. Capitol to the Wisconsin Assembly, the revelations have prompted calls for an end to secret settlements and private discipline that typifies the handling of sexual misconduct among elected leaders.
The scandal has also brought new attention to the different disclosure practices that apply to Minnesota institutions. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights routinely publicizes its findings and settlements when it investigates complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination in the workplace.
Last month, the department noted on its website that Minnesota was a national leader on the issue when legislators in 1982 added protection from sexual harassment to the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Yet lawmakers have resisted opening themselves to the same scrutiny. The Minnesota Legislature is one of only five in the nation that isn’t subject to any public records law, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition. If it were, then it would have to turn over records of final disciplinary actions and legal settlements stemming from sexual harassment claims.
I asked for these records anyway from the Minnesota House and Senate.
Susan Closmore, a spokeswoman for the House Republican majority, responded Wednesday:
“As you may already know, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act does not apply to records of the legislative branch,” Closmore wrote in an e-mail. “In addition, the House treats personnel matters as confidential.”
Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman sent an almost identical response Thursday: “I am unable to release the personnel records you have requested. As you know, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act does not apply to the legislative branch. In accordance with Senate custom and practice, personnel data are kept confidential.”
Some reconsideration took place, because on Friday afternoon, Ludeman and Closmore both e-mailed me to say neither the Senate nor the House has made any payouts to resolve claims of sexual harassment, assault or related misconduct since at least 2011.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, is one of the Legislature’s most consistent voices publicly supporting government transparency. But when I inquired with Scott about whether the sexual misconduct scandal was an argument for more openness, her office referred me to a House spokesperson.
Open-records advocate Rich Neumeister, who has lobbied the Legislature for four decades, had something to say about lawmakers’ silence on the issue. “They should be ashamed,” he said.
The Legislature can choose to give out whatever information it wants. If the Liquor Pig’s dirty laundry is public, it’s high time for the Capitol to come clean as well.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.