It wasn’t the first time, Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) said, that she experienced an uninvited and inappropriate touch while working in Annapolis.
A lobbyist once grabbed her thigh while they sat in the governor’s reception room waiting for a bill-signing ceremony. Another allegedly stroked her stomach a couple of times when the two talked.
Kagan, a first-term senator who served in the House of Delegates from 1995 to 2003, did not speak up about those incidents.
But when lobbyist Gil Genn allegedly groped her this month, Kagan decided she could not remain silent, galvanized by the national #MeToo movement and the increased discussion of alleged sexual harassment in the Maryland General Assembly.
“Unfortunately for him, he picked the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way,” said Kagan, 56, a longtime political and community activist who grew up in Potomac and has taught at Montgomery College and directed the Carl M. Freeman Foundation.
Genn, a former delegate turned lobbyist, vehemently denied the allegations.
Kagan’s accusation launched what for Maryland is an unusual public battle over alleged harassment, pitting two well-known Annapolis personalities against one another and breaking open what many female lawmakers, advocates and General Assembly staffers have described as a pervasive culture of silence.
Kagan is the first woman in the State House to publicly accuse a man of sexual misconduct since the nation began its current conversation on harassment.
She says Genn put his hand on her back and slid it down to her buttocks when they ran into one another recently at karaoke night at Castlebay Irish Pub.
“Damn — I can’t believe it just happened again!,” Kagan wrote on Facebook hours after the alleged incident. “With all the conversation, awareness, and press about #MeToo, did a lobbyist truly just put his hand on my back and slide it down down down. . . ? #DefinitelyNOTacceptable.”
She was encouraged by followers to name names. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” one wrote.
Kagan later edited her post, adding “I am SO tempted to start naming names as a consequence!”
Top staffers for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) saw the post, Kagan said, and encouraged her to file a complaint with Lori Mathis, the General Assembly’s manager of human resources.
Within hours the senator did so, and circulated a statement naming Genn as her alleged perpetrator.
Genn, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, released a three-page statement that said he attended the legislative karaoke night with his girlfriend and that he kept his hands to himself when he saw Kagan.
“I didn’t even shake her hand,” the statement said. “I assure you I did not commit the acts of which I have been accused. I welcome the opportunity to prove that truth to you — and to all others — through the due process of the complaint filed against me.”
Genn’s statement said he saw Kagan when he was leaving the reception. “There were dozens of people in the immediate vicinity walking by,” he wrote. “It was crowded and noisy. I was carrying my coat, umbrella and belongings when I left. . . I did not run my hand down her back or down to her tush.”
In an earlier interview with the Baltimore Sun, he called Kagan’s accusation “delusional,” a characterization that he apologized for in his statement.
Kagan told a muchdifferent story. She said she and her former aide, Justin Fiore, had moved to a quiet area of the restaurant to catch up with each other. The area was not crowded, she said. There was no way, in her mind, that she could have mistaken who touched her.
“Gil Genn came over to say hello, and he put his hand on my back and moved it down to my tush,” she said. “I turned my body toward Justin, kind of wanting to freeze Gil out, to send the message, ‘I’m in a conversation, leave now, please.’ ”
Fiore said he didn’t see where Genn’s hands were but did notice Kagan’s “body language and facial expression both changed at one point in the conversation.”
He said after Genn left, Kagan told him what happened. She said she then went back to the area where a few other people were gathered and told them.
“I have no stake in this,” Kagan said late last week. “Sticking my neck out is only causing me headaches, and it’s a distraction. I’d rather be talking about my 911 bills. . . I don’t want to talk about Gil Genn.”
It is not clear what will happen next. The legislature’s anti-sexual harassment policy does not cover lobbyists. The legislature’s human resources office department — where Kagan filed her complaint —handles complaints for and against legislators and staffers, but it does not specifically deal with lobbyists, whose conduct is governed by the state Ethics Commission.
Michael Lord, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the commission does not investigate claims of sexual harassment.
Kagan said she filed the complaint with Mathis so there would be a record of it and because she did not have a better option. Since filing her complaint, Kagan said, women have thanked her for coming forward and shared their own stories of being harassed.
Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), the president of the Women Legislators of Maryland caucus, said the case shows the flaws in the system and why there is a need to further update the state’s policy.
“It highlights the opportunity we have to improve our current system,” said Kelly, who has sponsored legislation that would strengthen the reporting and investigation of harassment allegations and would include sanctions for those who engage in that behavior. “Right now we don’t have a system for effectively investigating what happens with a lobbyist and holding them accountable.”
The bill had a hearing last week and must pass out of at least one chamber by March 19 to have a realistic chance of passage.
Legislative leaders said this session that they did not expect the bills put forward by the women’s caucus to pass this year. But Kelly said she has been told more recently, as the issue continues to be debated in Annapolis, that they may have a chance.
Nina Smith, a former Annapolis staffer who testified before the women’s caucus about being harassed while working in the capitol, said she was “sympathetic” to Kagan’s experience.
“One of the best ways she can help prevent something like that from happening to any of her colleagues or those working in the General Assembly is ensuring that we have a concrete bill that moves through the legislature,” Smith said. “She’s a sitting senator who can get this legislation passed.”
Kagan has made small public gestures to show her impatience with the traditional ways business is sometimes conducted in the State House, where female lawmakers remain a distinctminority even though their numbers have grown.
In 2015, her first year in the Senate, she was visibly uncomfortable with the annual Valentine’s Day ceremonies, in which Miller bought presents for and posed for a picture with the female lawmakers in his chamber, whom he often called “the lady senators.”
This year, as discussion of workplace harassment edged into the public sphere, Miller — the longest-serving state Senate president in the country — has made a significant effort to drop the “lady” honorific and address female lawmakers simply as “senator,” like he does their male counterparts.
One time when he forgot, he looked over at Kagan and said, “I’m trying.”