After National Allegations, Vermont Lawmakers Scrutinize Statehouse Sexual Harassment Protocols

Dec 5, 2017

A wave of new allegations against members of Congress has prompted a sweeping review of sexual harassment policies in the nation’s capital. But in Montpelier, it’s a previously undisclosed incident from this past April that state lawmakers are trying to learn from.

This past session was a busy one in Montpelier, full of political standoffs between Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor. But behind the scenes, obscured from public view, a small group of senators wrestled with a more pressing dilemma.

It happened in April, when an individual filed a formal complaint to the Senate Sexual Harassment Panel, alleging inappropriate behavior by a sitting Vermont senator.

“When the complaint arrived to me, I empaneled the group that had been appointed by the Committee on Committees to serve on the Sexual Harassment Panel,” says Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Sexual Harassment Panel.

It was the first time during Balint’s tenure that the panel had been called on to investigate one of its own.

“And the panel met about the complaint, and we met with both parties, and it was settled without formal disciplinary action,” Balint says.

As per Senate rules, the identity of the alleged perpetrator is confidential. Also kept a secret is the nature of the complaint. 

"You've got five senators that are asked to gather testimony on one of their own, right? And that is an uncomfortable dynamic for anyone coming forward who is not also a member." — Sen. Becca Balint

While the case was ultimately resolved, Balint says the exercise exposed potential shortcomings in the Senate’s approach to the issue.

“You’ve got five senators that are asked to gather testimony on one of their own, right? And that is an uncomfortable dynamic for anyone coming forward who is not also a member,” Balint says.

Balint says the experience also raised serious questions about the ability of five citizen legislators to lead sexual harassment investigations.

“Not just how are they able to investigate, but also have we as a group received enough training to conduct this in a manner that is upholding the rights of both individuals?” Balint says.

Here’s her answer:

“We who serve on the panel need more training to do this job in a way that is sensitive to all the parties involved,” Balint says.

Balint and Brattleboro Rep. Mollie Burke are on a mission to lift the profile of the House and Senate sexual harassment panels in Montpelier.

With high-profile cases of workplace assault and harassment dominating headlines nationally‚ including in the U.S. House and Senate, Balint and Burke say they’re trying to foster a culture of accountability in the Statehouse.

“I think there’s going to be a lot more sort of awareness about this issue, and people stopping it at the point where something happens,” says Burke, who serves as chairwoman of the five-member House Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee.

"I think there's going to be a lot more sort of awareness about this issue, and people stopping it at the point where something happens." — Rep. Mollie Burke

The House and Senate have revised their respective sexual harassment policies in recent years, following the arrest of former Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister in 2015. McAllister was cleared of charges of sexual assault, but found guilty of a misdemeanor count of prohibited acts.

As Balint and Burke spread awareness of the Legislature’s sexual harassment prevention mechanisms, however, they’re acknowledging shortcomings in the legislative branch’s existing approach to policing their own.

As is the case in the Senate, the House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel is responsible for investigating allegations against representatives.

Burke says the House’s sexual harassment policy says that members of the panel are eligible for special training, “so they can carry out their responsibilities.”

The panel’s members have yet to receive that training according to Burke.

Balint and Burke say they’re working on getting that training in place.

It’s critical that they do so, says Balint.

"I know that there are people today who have complaints that they have not come forward with because the state is so small." — Sen. Becca Balint

There have been no high-profile falls from grace in Vermont since the Harvey Weinstein story broke in early October — no public outings of alleged predators stalking the halls of the Statehouse.

But in recent stories in Seven Days and VTDigger, female lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative employees have recounted sometimes serious incidents of sexual harassment in the Statehouse.  

And Balint says the problem is very real.

“I know that there are people today who have complaints that they have not come forward with, because the state is so small,” Balint says. “And even in the last week, I had a conversation with somebody who probably will not come forward with a complaint, because she fears her ability to be hired going forward.”

The Legislature isn’t the only branch of government examining its sexual harassment policies. Gov. Phil Scott says in light of recent news, he’s asked his commissioner of human resources to review the state’s harassment prevention and detection protocols.