The Rhode Island lawmaker who pushed unsuccessfully last session for a package of bills to meant to discourage sexual harassment at the Statehouse said the legislature lacks an effective process for reviewing harassment claims.
State Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) said Rhode Island needs to look to other states to establish a process for vetting harassment claims, possibly through an independent panel.
In an interview last December with The Public's Radio, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was asked if there was process for lawmakers to report sexual harassment. His response: "Yes, you go to our human resources department and there's folks that they can report it to or they're free to come to me if they need to."
But Tanzi said the existing process is flawed since the legislature's human resources department is operated by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS), the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly, which is effectively controlled by the speaker.
A JCLS employee who helps lawmakers with issues like direct deposit or open enrollment for health insurance is not qualified to investigate harassment allegations, Tanzi said in an interview Tuesday.
As a result, female lawmakers have "nowhere to turn," she said, since the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights generally lacks jurisdiction over lawmakers.
"We need an independent third-party outside [group] to come and investigate these cases when they happen," Tanzi said.
House spokesman Larry Berman said lawmakers have the option of reporting complaints to the JCLS, the Commission for Human Rights, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- and that signs displayed in the Statehouse offer additional details on this.
Berman added, "In January 2018, Speaker Mattiello sponsored a Sexual Harassment and Diversity training session and recommended that all Representatives attend this three-hour training. At the session, representatives again were instructed where to file a complaint and the steps that would be taken to investigate an official complaint."
Tanzi spoke out on the issue after WPRI.com reported Monday that Rep. Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence) said she had been harassed by Rep. Cale Keable (D-Burrillville). Mattiello removed Keable, at least temporarily, from his role as House Judiciary Committee chairman, while using a statement to assert that issues between Kazarian and Keable grew out of "a close personal and professional relationship."
Keable, who has also been put on administrative leave from his job as a lawyer with Partridge Snow & Hahn, according to the WPRI story, has not responded to an email seeking comment. Kazarian declined comment beyond this: "I sent the email [alleging harassment] to Speaker Mattiello back in March and the email speaks for itself. All I wanted was a fair hearing on my bills."
According to WPRI's story, Kazarian's email included this message: " 'As we have discussed, I have endured years of sexual harassment by House Judiciary Chairperson, Cale Keable,' She went on to express concerns about whether Keable would handle her bills fairly before his committee."
A lawyer for Keable, Kathleen Hagerty, used a statement Tuesday afternoon to offer this message: "On behalf of Representative Keable it is difficult to respond in any meaningful way to the allegation of 'sexual harassment' that was contained within the email of Representative Kazarian dated March 11, 2018. My attempts to gather any specifics or details about this claim have not been successful. I have confirmed with Channel 12 that they were never provided any specifics by Representative Kazarian as to what may have occurred that resulted in her belief that she has been the victim of sexual harassment."
Hagerty said Keable and Kazarian "have not communicated in any substantive way since some time in the first quarter of 2015, when what was once a close platonic friendship ended. So, it would seem, that any conduct complained of would have had to be prior to this time."
Hagerty concluded: " As there are no legal proceedings of any kind pending involving Representative Keable relating to this allegation, it seems that it will be left to the public to decide if a statement of this kind, without any proof or evidence of truth, can be sufficient to achieve its obvious political objective."
Frank Gaschen, a staff lawyer with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, said he couldn't make a blanket statement regarding the commission's jurisdiction over lawmakers. But he said the commission would generally lack jurisdiction over harassment claims involving lawmakers since most are not defined as being in an employee relationship with one another.
Keable, a strong Mattiello supporter, was first elected in 2010. Kazarian was first elected in 2012.
The emergence of Kazarian's claim against Keable has led more outside groups, including the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, to oppose Mattiello. The Democratic speaker faces a challenge for his state representative seat from Cranston Republican Steve Frias. The election is next Tuesday.
Tanzi last year said she had been harassed by another lawmaker. She declined to identify that person, and said it was more important to focus on ways to reduce harassment. Tanzi went on to lead a commission reviewing the subject. She blames Mattiello for being the "only obstacle" to passing legislation that grew out of the commission.
Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said the anti-harassment bills did not advance due to business community opposition. "With the end of the session approaching, there was not enough time to reach a consensus to move the bills out of committee," Berman said. "Upon introduction early in the 2019 session, Speaker Mattiello hopes that all interested parties will attend hearings and consensus can be reached so that bills can be moved forward."
Frias offered this reaction to how Mattiello was not available to speak with reporters: "Hiding has never made a scandal go away. All it does is show everyone that you have something to hide. If you are too afraid to face the public, you shouldn't hold public office."
Meanwhile, Jennifer Bogdan, spokeswoman for Gov. Gina Raimondo, said Raimondo backs stronger measures to protect legislators against harassment.
"The executive branch has a clear policy outlining how sexual harassment claims of state employees are to be handled," Bogdan said. "The legislature is not subject to that policy and instead falls under the rules of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services. A year ago the governor called on that body to pass its own policy on sexual harassment, and the governor continues to believe a policy should be put in place that ensures all claims of sexual harassment are fully investigated.”
Mattiello told The Public's Radio last December he was not aware of any other allegations of harassment involving lawmakers other than what Tanzi described last year.
Berman said Mattiello answered that way because "Rep. Kazarian has always attempted to maintain privacy regarding this sensitive matter."
This story has been updated.