State House to update sexual harassment plan

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Action comes one year after the resignation of former speaker amid allegations from multiple women

By AUDREY McAVOY

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — Leaders of the state House of Representatives announced proposals Monday to update the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, a move that comes a year after its former speaker resigned amid allegations brought by several women.

The proposed new policy, which covers members of the public and not just employees, specifies that people may take their complaints to the speaker, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or judiciary.

Existing policy calls for employee complaints to be filed to a supervisor, House speaker or chief clerk, who works for the speaker.

Former Speaker Joe Souki from Maui resigned in March. The only woman to publicly accuse Souki, Rachael Wong, was the former head of the state Department of Human Services and wasn’t a House employee.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said allegations against Souki were a “wake-up call.”

“We wanted our policy to be broader, clearer and provide more specificity on what kind of conduct is prohibited,” Saiki told reporters at a news conference announcing the changes.

Several legislatures across the United States have updated their sexual misconduct policies following the rise of the #MeToo movement to international spotlight. In October 2017, sexual misconduct allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein prompted men and women to come forward with claims against powerful men in politics, entertainment, business and media. Several lawmakers around the country were expelled or forced to resign after allegations were substantiated.

State House members support the changes to the policy and will vote on them this month, Saiki said. The policy hasn’t been updated in at least 10 years.

“It really emphasizes that the House wants to have a respectful workplace that’s free from harassment,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, the House majority leader and a member of the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus.

Saiki said allegations would be kept confidential, though in substantiated cases the House would have to determine how to discipline culprits and censures and expulsions of House members would be made public. For employees, possible penalties include reprimands or firing. House members may lose committee assignments or leadership posts or be expelled.

House leaders plan to hold a mandatory staff meeting on Tuesday to review the new policy with them, said Saiki, a Democrat who represents Kakaako and downtown Honolulu.

The House crafted the policy with the help of a three-person working group that included the chief attorney for Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the director of legal affairs for the Hawaii Employers Council and the vice president of human resources at the Hawaii Medical Service Association or HMSA. The working group sought input from House employees in the fall.

Wong said the new policy proposal was a good first step, but she was disappointed the House didn’t seek input from non-employees and from temporary workers.

Wong said not including the Hawaii State Ethics Commission as a possible avenue for complaints was a “glaring omission,” noting that’s where she and others who filed complaints against Souki went.

Saiki told reporters he had doubts about whether the ethics commission rightly had jurisdiction over legislators. He said the Legislature has sole jurisdiction over disciplining lawmakers.

Wong was also concerned the policy calls for confidentiality to be preserved. Saiki said complainants won’t have to sign non-disclosure agreements, but they would be asked to keep their complaints confidential.

“When everything is stacked against you and you’re just trying to get fair treatment, to put a gag order on you is putting another layer of silence on this culture of silence,” Wong said.

The state Senate has hired an expert consultant to help it review its anti-harassment policy, said Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the Senate majority. He said the updated policy is undergoing a final review and senators will vote on it during the next session.