A Massachusetts Senate committee is calling on the chamber to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements and specifically make lawmakers subject to their own sexual harassment policies after assault allegations against its former leader’s husband exposed “weaknesses” in its current system.
But, unlike its House counterparts, the panel offered changes that fall short of overhauling where and how harassment complaints are handled, instead opting to largely keep its current structure — despite concerns that it made retaliation-wary victims fearful of coming forward.
The recommendations filed Tuesday by the Special Senate Committee to Review the Sexual Harassment Policies and Procedures include a number of clarifications to what its chairwoman, Senator Joan B. Lovely, called the chamber’s already “very good” guidelines on harassment.
They come in the wake of months of tumult, in which former Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg stepped down from his post and then ultimately resigned his seat after an ethics investigation found that he knew or should have known that his husband, Bryon Hefner, racially and sexually harassed Senate employees — and that he failed to address the issue adequately.
The probe, the results of which were made public earlier this month, was prompted by a Globe report in November in which four men accused Hefner of sexually assaulting or harassing them while bragging about the influence he had over Rosenberg’s office. The policy review was officially launched two months later and largely ran parallel to the investigation into Rosenberg.
“It was absolutely at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Lovely said of the probe. “The Rosenberg-Hefner investigation showed that we had some weaknesses in [our policies]. That kind of set that standard going forward.”
As a result, the committee is recommending the Senate formally include interns in its policies, increase the number of harassment trainings that senators and staff must undergo every year, and allow the Senate’s human resources director to unilaterally mete out discipline to staff in cases of minor offenses, including ordering additional training.
It also says Senate policy should include its own members. The current policy “does not explicitly” do so, the committee found.
It also recommends barring the use of nondisclosure agreements, a practice that has not been used by Senate President Harriette L. Chandler or Rosenberg but was previously, including under then-Senate president Therese Murray before she left in 2015. Between 2010 and 2017, the Senate signed eight severance agreements with departing employees, though none were related to sexual harassment claims, according to Chandler’s office.
As part of its own package of changes, the House waived all previous nondisclosure agreements but it kept open the possibility of others in the future under certain conditions.
Rosenberg was never accused of criminal wrongdoing, nor did investigators find evidence that he previously knew about any of Hefner’s alleged sexual assaults. But the report into his conduct also cast a harsh light on the Senate’s culture: Some of those who told investigators they were the victims of Hefner said they were afraid to take action to stop the behavior given Hefner’s relationship with Rosenberg.
But the committee does not call for overhauling the process of filing complaints. Senate staff and others who do business before the body can report allegations to either the Senate counsel or the HR director, both of whom will continue to be appointed directly by the Senate president’s office.
The committee is instead recommending an additional check-and-balance in which a separate Senate panel, the Committee on Personnel and Administration, must approve the HR director’s appointment, and that he or she can only be removed by cause.
There’s some appetite in the Senate to go further. A bill filed by state Senator James B. Eldridge and pending in the chamber would create an “independent public entity” to handle such complaints, and Eldridge raised its prospects as recently as two weeks ago in a closed-door caucus with other senators, according to Senator Barbara L’Italien, an Andover Democrat and another one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“I think victims will feel more confident coming forward if they can report to an independent body,” L’Italien said Tuesday.
The recommendation also comes in contrast to the House, where lawmakers there passed an order in March creating a new office to investigate accusations of misconduct against elected officials and staffers.
Lovely said the committee discussed creating something similar but ultimately felt the tweaks they recommended would provide people with enough confidence that any complaints would be handled confidentially.
“People want to be able to have an opportunity to report to an independent entity,” she said, “which we said will now be HR with more enhancements.”
Chandler said in a statement that she feels the recommendations “address many of the concerns raised over the past few months.”
“This report makes it clear that sexual harassment is not tolerated in the Senate, and ensures a clear pathway for victims and witnesses to come forward to share their experiences,” she said, noting it also includes the recommendation to create an anonymous workplace climate survey.Reach Matt Stout at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.