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Maryland women’s caucus releases report that details accounts of sexual harassment

Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) is president of the General Assembly’s  women’s caucus, officially called the Women Legislators of Maryland.
Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) is president of the General Assembly’s women’s caucus, officially called the Women Legislators of Maryland. (Evelyn Hockstein)
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Female lawmakers in Maryland released a report Friday that details numerous alleged accounts of sexual harassment and assault by male colleagues, including one incident in which a woman said she had to “forcefully” push a co-worker away after he grabbed her breasts and stuck his tongue in her ear during a ride home from a work event.

Another lawmaker recounted that a colleague put his hand on her thigh. “When I scolded him, he shamed me.”

The accounts — all anonymous — are part of a 38-page report that includes recommendations intended to shift the culture in Annapolis and to hold violators accountable. They include the hiring of “in-house expert” to track ­reports and investigate complaints of harassment, the hiring of an independent investigator to look into claims against lawmakers and anti-sexual harassment training for lobbyists.

The report was distributed by the women’s caucus at the first meeting of the Workforce Harassment Commission, created by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to find the best way to address allegations of misconduct in Annapolis.

The women’s caucus has been examining the legislature’s anti-harassment policy for more than a year, and its report is the culmination of that work. The accounts do not provide years when the alleged incidents occurred.

The commission, which was created last month, is the most recent attempt by the presiding officers to address sexual harassment.

“We have a good policy in place, but we really need to be better,” Miller said. The panel has been charged with examining policies dealing with workplace harassment in all three branches of the state government.

The commission received an overview of the current anti-harassment policy used by the legislature, which was created in 1993 and has been updated over the years with changes designed to increase reporting and improve transparency.

In December, the Joint Legislative Committee ordered Lori Mathis, the General Assembly’s manager of human resources, to begin tracking complaints and their outcomes. Last year, the committee amended the policy to allow witnesses to sexual harassment to report incidents and applied the policy to transgender individuals. It also designated a male staffer to receive reports of harassment, in addition to a female staffer.

Mathis, who works with state employees of the Department of Legislative Services and state lawmakers, told the panel that her work had been “manageable” before “the national explosion.” Since the #MeToo movement picked up momentum, “it has become overwhelming,” she said of the increase in complaints she has received. “I can’t give you a number right now.”

Former state Sen. James Robey, one of two men on the 12-member panel, raised concerns about Mathis being the only person in her office investigating allegations for both staff and lawmakers.

Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), president of the caucus, has introduced legislation that calls for an independent investigator.

Another panel member, attorney Kathleen Cahill, noted that the reporting policy allows leadership to know about complaints.

“Reporting to leadership at the outset can interfere with the integrity of the investigation,” she said. Of the idea of one of the legislative leaders calling a perpetrator in, “grabbing [him] by the collar” and telling them to behave better, “those days are gone,” she said.

The commission announced that it plans to submit its final report in December. Mike Morrill, a panel member, said he would hope that an interim report could be submitted earlier to allow the legislature to take some steps before next year.

Kelly said she would hope that legislative and administrative changes occur this year to address the reporting, training, accountability and transparency, which are top priorities of the women’s caucus.

After the meeting, Jeanne Hitchcock, chairwoman of the commission, said that it was “still too early to tell” if some of the panel’s work could be completed before the end of the year.

“It’s a daunting task,” Hitchcock said. “What we’re trying to facilitate with this work is a cultural change.”