Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL263.PRB - How Lawmakers Handle Sexual Scandals
The recent stories about sexual misbehavior by members of Congress are a reminder of how differently similar issues were handled in Missouri's legislature two years ago.
In Congress and Missouri's General Assembly allegations of inappropriate conduct led to resignations.
In Congress, members spent weeks trying to hang on to their taxpayer-funded jobs while Congressional leaders and colleagues waffled.
In contrast, the 2015 Missouri resignations were swift in response to a near-united firmness among their colleagues that seemed missing in Washington.
The problems for Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, and House Speaker John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, involved behavior with their college interns.
Unlike the protracted sagas we've seen from Congress, both LeVota and Diehl resigned within days after published stories linked their names to charges of inappropriate behavior.
LeVota's decision came after he was named in a Senate investigation into sexual harassment complaints.
Diehl tried to hang on after a story broke of sexually charged text messages with an intern. For a day, he called small groups of fellow Republicans into his office seeking support to remain as House speaker.
But from those discussions, Diehl realized his position was untenable and announced his resignation.
Another aspect that makes Missouri stand out were the actions of Diehl's successor.
Emerging from the closed door Republican caucus that choose Todd Richardson for the next House Speaker, Richardson made it clear that steps would be taken to address the issue.
It was not empty rhetoric.
At Richardson's direction, a legislative committee began reviewing House rules and procedures to see what could be done. They heard impassioned testimony from one of the harassed interns.
The House and Senate significantly toughened their policies on sexual harassment after the 2015 scandals.
The House went further, adopting a new rule mandating an investigation by both the Ethics Committee and an independent counsel of any sexual harassment complaint by or against a House member.
The gender sensitivity in today's General Assembly represents a major transformation from what I encountered when I began covering the statehouse in 1970.
Sen. Claire McCaskill has described the harassment she experienced as a Missouri statehouse intern. I was not surprised. Around the same time, my female journalism students told me about similar experiences.
Frankly, back then, it was a male-dominated place with more than a few contributing to a "boys' night out" atmosphere.
It was so blatant, that some legislators made little effort to hide the girl friends they hired as staff.
When one legislative wife demanded the girl-friend staffer be fired, a colleague put her on his staff. She continued working in her original boss's office, but only when his wife was not in town.
Another indication of the "boys will be boys" mentality came when the legislature pressured the administration to remove a security camera that recorded traffic in and out of the Capitol garage. I was told that some members did not want a recording of their late-night partners.
State Auditor George Lehr told me of one committee chair's threat to cut his budget if he did not fire one of the auditor's female staffers. Others told me she had rejected sexual advances from the legislator.
One blatant demonstration of these attitudes came after lawmakers rushed to the screams in a legislative office where they encountered a legislator pursuing a female staffer.
To keep the staffer silent, one legislative source bragged to me that a deal had been worked out to give her a higher-paying state job.
These by-gone era stories did not represent the actions of a majority of folks in the statehouse.
But there was a tolerance that I do not think exists today.
There are a number of factors for that change. Obviously, society's attitudes have evolved.
The increased numbers of female lawmakers and lobbyists has helped.
As Diehl and LeVota discovered, statehouse reporters are more aggressive in reporting legislative misbehavior.
Finally, there have been some pretty significant steps Missouri's legislature has taken that Congress might want to consider.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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