PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A top Rhode Island House Democrat on Monday proposed creating a formal procedure for handling sexual harassment claims in the General Assembly, the first official action proposed since Target 12 revealed an allegation against former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Cale Keable.
Deputy House Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski said he will pre-file legislation to be considered next year that would add an independent Assembly employee – dubbed an equal employment opportunity (EEO) officer – who would be “charged with investigating any complaint against a General Assembly member or staff member alleging sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, or retaliation.”
Blazjewski’s bill would also establish a bipartisan, seven-lawmaker Special Committee on Professional Conduct “empowered to recommend private or public discipline, including reprimand, censure, removal from position as a chair or other position of authority, or expulsion.” The full House or Senate would vote on the recommendation.
The proposal comes two weeks after Target 12 first reported that state Rep. Katherine Kazarian sent an email to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in March alleging “years of sexual harassment” by Keable, D-Burrillville. Keable, who has denied the accusation, lost his re-election race last week. The news helped spur 21 House Democrats to vote against retaining Mattiello as speaker at a caucus last week.
“It is critical that the General Assembly reform its policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, and related retaliation,” Blazejewski said in a statement. “The legislature must ensure that all people appearing in its chambers and before its committees – members, staff, and the public – are protected from harassment and have a safe, respectful space to engage in the political process.”
Blazejewski’s sponsorship of the bill is notable for multiple reasons. The Providence Democrat, who represents a liberal East Side district, is a member of Mattiello’s leadership team and broke with many fellow progressives to support the speaker at last week’s caucus. He was personally close to both Kazarian and Keable during the period when she alleges the harassment took place.
Blazejewski has not commented publicly since the story broke about what he knew of their interactions, and he was not immediately available for an interview Monday.
In a statement, Mattiello welcomed the effort. “I have already spoken with Rep. Blazejewski and we are working together on this important issue,” he said.
“I will be meeting with him, as well as my legal counsel Danica Iacoi, in the near future to develop policies and procedures, and we are currently researching best practices conducted in other states,” Mattiello continued. “I thank Rep. Blazejewski, who is a thoughtful and reform-minded legislator, for his leadership.”
(In a podcast with Providence Journal editorials editor Ed Achorn on Friday, the speaker defended his treatment of women and his sensitivity toward harassment in general. “I probably treat women better than most people,” he said.)
Kazarian, D-East Providence, said she also wants to work on developing a formal procedure to deal with harassment allegations in the future.
“I am most interested in working on any type of change that would protect people who serve and work in our state legislature from sexual harassment,” Kazarian said in a statement. “All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation. I plan to participate in developing a system that functions to protect all who serve.”
Blazejewski said he based his proposals on rule changes made by the Massachusetts House earlier this year following a scandal involving accusations of harassment against Bryon Hefner, the husband of former Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg. A grand jury indicted Hefner for his alleged behavior earlier this year.
As outlined by Blazejewski, the Assembly’s EEO officer would be appointed for a four-year term, “with removal for cause only,” to protect the individual from leadership pressure. The officer would conduct confidential 90-day investigations if provided a “plausible” complaint about alleged harassment or retaliation, and would make a confidential recommendation.
In cases involving elected lawmakers, the new Special Committee on Professional Conduct would be authorized to conduct a confidential review of the EEO officer’s decision and make its own recommendation. Information would remain confidential unless public discipline is recommended.
For staff members, disciplinary action would be handled by the EEO officer; the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which manages the Assembly’s roughly $40-million annual budget; and the employee’s supervisor.
John Marion, who tracks Assembly policies closely as executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, called the bill “a noteworthy attempt to create a system for handling sexual harassment complaints by staff and members of the General Assembly.”
“There is a notable omission from the proposal – complementary changes to the House rules to allow for punishment of members,” Marion said in an email. “In order to effectuate this new policy, the House will have to adopt rules allowing it to censure or expel members, without which there is no mechanism to act on the recommendations of the new equal employment opportunity officer.”
In a follow-up interview, Marion noted that Arizona expelled a member for sexual harassment earlier this year following a lengthy investigation. “Other states are far ahead of Rhode Island in terms of their ability to investigate and go after problems with sexual harassment,” he said, adding, “We’re just trying to build that capacity.”
Blazejewski indicated he is open to alternative ideas. “In reforming our policies and procedures regarding harassment, we should look to other states in evaluating best practices,” he said.
“We should also be open to considering other potential approaches, including referring complaints to the attorney general’s office, the Human Rights Commission, or the Ethics Commission, so long as the policy adopted by the legislature achieves the goal of protecting victims and providing for an independent investigatory and review process,” he continued.