Legislative leaders in Maryland on Tuesday ordered officials to start collecting data on sexual misconduct complaints against state lawmakers or their staff members, the latest fallout from a tidal wave of harassment allegations that have toppled elected officials and industry leaders nationwide.
"This is a watershed moment in time, and we need to make certain that everyone is treated fairly and that there's a place they can go," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said shortly before the Legislative Policy Committee — chaired by him and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — approved the changes.
The General Assembly's human resources department will begin tallying harassment complaints and will brief the Legislative Policy Committee annually on the nature and outcomes of investigations. The identities of accused harassers will not be included in the report, regardless of whether the claims are found to have merit.
The report will be considered a public record, though it is unclear whether people who want to see it will have to file a public-information request.
"That type of data is better than nothing, so that the public can get a sense of how big of a problem is this and what types of steps are taken to address it," said Avi Kumin, a Washington lawyer who represents sexual harassment victims.
But he and other experts on sexual harassment issues said the General Assembly should name those who are found to have acted inappropriately.
"I understand the need to be sensitive for due process and for privacy, but if a complaint is substantiated, don't the voters have a right to know about the malfeasance and misbehavior of their elected officials?" said Jennifer A. Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University who studies sexual harassment. "These elected officials answer to the people."
Miller and Busch, through their aides, did not respond to this criticism.
Under the current process, alleged victims of sexual harassment can file complaints with the legislature's human resources director or with staff members of Busch and Miller. The human resources director investigates the cases. The presiding officers are informed of cases involving lawmakers, have a role in deciding disciplinary measures and handle appeals.
Complaints may be referred to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, a panel of lawmakers that can punish colleagues with public reprimands or provide victims with written findings that the victims can choose to make public.
Neither scenario has occurred in connection with harassment allegations in recent memory.
Experts on sexual harassment investigations said the involvement of legislative leaders has both benefits and drawbacks.
"The pro, of course, is it's handled at a higher level and there is some sense of greater accountability than it just disappearing into an HR reporting system," Kumin said. At the same time, he added, knowing that Busch and Miller will be told if allegations are made against a sitting lawmaker could discourage people from coming forward. "One of the reasons that people are fearful now is that they are concerned about possible retaliation," he said.
Debbie Dougherty, a professor at the University of Missouri who studies institutional harassment, said having only one person designated to investigate complaints can also be problematic.
"The standard reasons why people don't report usually come back to the people they are reporting to," she said. "I would be a lot more comfortable if multiple people investigated, even independently."
Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) said she believes that many victims are reluctant to come forward. "I know, talking with people, that the issue is more prevalent than what's reported," she said.
Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), one of 11 women in the 47-seat state Senate, said the decision to track complaints reflects "encouraging progress, but I suspect we can do more" in terms of transparency and accountability.
Asked at a news conference about the policy change, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he was surprised that the legislature wasn't already compiling data on sexual harassment.
"The legislature obviously doesn't fall under our purview, but it's surprising to me that they haven't had any kind of policy before and a good idea for them to do," he said.