Metro

Mass. House proposes office to investigate sexual harassment

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Responding to complaints of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill, the Massachusetts House of Representatives is poised to create an office to investigate accusations of misconduct against elected officials and staffers.

The review of current policies and the proposal to update them, conducted by the top lawyer for the House, was initiated in October 2017 after a Globe report. That story was based on interviews with a dozen women who have worked in and around the State House over the past two decades, and detailed a climate of harassment and sexual misconduct, perpetrated by powerful men on Beacon Hill.

In several listening sessions held by the House counsel’s office and two outside law firms, members of the House, as well as staff, described a legislative body that cannot effectively hold its members accountable for misconduct.

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“There is an imbedded power dynamic within the House, which discourages staff from reporting incidents of harassment due to the fear of retaliation and of jeopardizing one’s career,” according to the House counsel’s report.

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“Staff has extensive concerns about a lack of confidentiality,” the report also found.

If the recommendations are adopted, the House — which is composed of 160 representatives supported by about 480 employees — will establish an equal employment opportunity officer.

That person, with their staff, is intended to be able to operate with some autonomy, serving a two-year term that is designed to insulate them from retaliation. The EEO officer, appointed by a House committee, would only be subject to removal during that term “for misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance.”

That officer would confidentially investigate complaints — including holding conversations at an office outside the gossip-fueled confines of the State House — and mete out discipline against staffers, if warranted. Employee termination would require approval from the House counsel or House Speaker.

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For complaints against state representatives, the new official could only investigate, initiate private discipline with the member, or confidentially suggest a public punishment to an ad hoc committee of elected members.

But only the Special Committee on Professional Conduct could initiate any kind of public discipline. That committee could make a report of bad behavior public, and could recommend the full House reprimand, censure, or expel a member. (The state Constitution limits the House alone to punishing its members for breaking House rules.)

The proposed process has raised concerns among House staffers that representatives could bury legitimate complaints about their colleagues.

“The recommendations are a good first step, but fail to end a broken system of reps policing reps,” said one current House staffer who asked not to be named, fearing the repercussions of speaking out. “Until that changes, many victims will continue to avoid a system stacked against them.”

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said that no system is perfect, but that the reforms being proposed — which would apply only to the House of Representatives, not the Senate — are giant leap forward.

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“I don’t know if there’s any possibility of a fail-safe system,” he told reporters. But he said he doesn’t know of any other Legislature that provides the types of protections this proposal would and addresses the major “issues we wanted to address, in particular . . . keeping of confidentiality and also [making] sure that the people do not have any fear of harassment or retaliation in any way.”

The raft of new procedures include several simple mandates to standardize hiring, which is now conducted informally in offices of many state representatives.

“We’re going to require the HR director to develop an application for employment,” James C. Kennedy, the House’s chief legal counsel, told journalists in a briefing. “We’re going to require that candidates go through a background and reference check by the HR director. And that each employee receive an offer letter detailing the specific requirements of the position.”

The proposed changes include seemingly modest ones that were also the result of the listening sessions.

For example, the office of human resources is set to be restructured and expanded, get a new director, and have its physical location moved to a prominent spot in the State House.

“One of the things we’ve heard consistently from staff has been that the current location of the office is in our sub-basement, and there are only two other offices in that hallway,” Kennedy said, “and staff has repeatedly informed us that they feel very uncomfortable having to go into the sub-basement [because] there is really only one reason to be in the sub-basement.”

The House is also poised to conduct a confidential survey on the climate in the chamber, gathering data on the prevalence of sexual harassment, and obstacles to reporting it. The results are expected to be compiled by the end of the year, Kennedy said.

But some things won’t change, even if the recommendations are adopted.

There will still be no prohibition on state representatives engaging in romantic relationships with their staff, Kennedy said.

The recommendations are just that — and many must be approved by House legislators, who could amend them, potentially watering them down.

Unlike the majority of Massachusetts state employees, legislative staffers are not unionized.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.