Reynolds administration ignores senator’s questions on 200 unresolved sexual harassment claims

May 23, 2022 8:00 am

Iowa state government has nearly 200 unresolved sexual harassment complaints pending. (Photo by Mathias Fengler/EyeEm/Getty Images)

The state of Iowa had a backlog of nearly 200 employee sexual harassment complaints as of April 20 that had not been investigated, state Sen. Janet Petersen said during a recent budget meeting.

“Taxpayers, since 2012, have paid out $28 million in claims and I see nothing in this budget addressing sexual harassment or hostile work environments,” Petersen said during the meeting.

The state has paid $28.6 million between the 2012 fiscal year and the end of April 2022 to settle cases related to sexual harassment, hostile work environment, age discrimination, disability discrimination, civil rights violations, free speech violations and retaliation, according to information provided to Petersen by the State Appeals Board. Nearly $5.4 million of those settlements was approved this year.

State Sen. Janet Petersen is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Petersen said she’s been trying since April 25 to get answers from the director of the Department of Administrative Services to a series of questions about the cases. The number of cases pending, 199, was disclosed by DAS before the current director, Adam Steen, was confirmed by the Senate. Since then, she said, she has received no response from the agency.

She also wrote to Gov. Kim Reynolds on May 5, asking for confirmation that none of eight other appointees still to be confirmed have been “under investigation for or have any founded harassment, discrimination, violence in the workplace, hostile work environment or any other founded complaint of this nature.” She has received no response, she said.

Questions go unanswered

Petersen’s questions to DAS included how long the three oldest of the 199 cases have been pending, how many cases have been designated as founded or unfounded, and whether the complainant is informed whether their case is concluded as founded or unfounded. She asked how many investigators were assigned to work on these cases and how the department implements the governor’s “zero tolerance policy” regarding workplace sexual harassment.

Tami Wiencek, the legislative liaison for the department, said she had no answers Wednesday when Petersen raised the questions during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on the state budget.

Reynolds has led Iowans to believe her administration takes workplace sexual harassment seriously. She declared “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment, reinforcing that position after firing the head of the Iowa Finance Authority, Dave Jamison, in March 2018, based on what she called “credible” allegations of sexual harassment. Earlier this year, however, the state had to pay out nearly $1 million in a settlement for a former Department of Human Services social worker who accused a female supervisor of sexual harassment.

“Basically, everyone knows that no one's holding them accountable, so they can get away with doing whatever they want.”

– Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines

Senate Republicans have had their own sexual harassment challenges. The state in 2017 paid a $1.75 million settlement to a former legislative staffer for the Senate GOP, Kirsten Anderson, who was fired in May 2013 after complaining about a hostile work environment.

Anderson, by the way, observed in a guest column for Iowa Capital Dispatch last year that state government had not learned its lesson from her case.

Apparently, “zero tolerance” does not mean the Reynolds administration is willing to answer questions about their response to complaints.

Are harassment victims left in the dark?

Not only is Petersen not getting answers, but she’s wondering whether people who complain about harassment are even told how their complaint is resolved, she said. The department wrote to her on April 25 and said this about how investigations are resolved:

“All individuals who were interviewed as part of the investigation receive a letter thanking them for their participation and letting them know that the investigation has been closed. In the event that an agency head is somehow involved in the investigation, the DAS director reviews the complaint and takes the appropriate steps to resolve the matter.”

Petersen has asked to clarify whether the complainant is told whether the complaint was founded. Again, she has received no answer.

Petersen said in an interview she doesn’t really understand what the governor means by “zero tolerance.” I also asked a governor’s spokesman in an email Friday how DAS is carrying out the governor’s zero tolerance policy.  I’ll let you know if I hear back.

From what little information Petersen has received, she said, “it’s kind of an empty promise to Iowans. I mean, the person who, like, comes forward with the case gets a thank you. It’s ended and like nothing else,” she said. It takes courage for someone to come forward and this sort of response is a signal that people shouldn’t bother, she said.

The situation underscores the lack of transparency for which the Reynolds administration has unfortunately become notorious.

What about government oversight?

It also reinforces that Republican majority party members in the House and Senate are ignoring their duty of government oversight.

Petersen said during Wednesday’s appropriations meeting she was “frustrated” that lawmakers were getting ready to approve the state budget without having answers to her simple questions.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, also said the current situation was an example of an overall lack of government oversight by the majority party. Senate Republicans this year decided not to hold appropriations subcommittee meetings, which are typically held together with the House. Those meetings in the past provided time to meet with department heads and ask questions like the ones Petersen is raising, she said.

Not only are the budget panels not meeting, she said, but the Senate Government Oversight Committee is also not meeting.

“Coincidence? I don’t think so,” she said. “Basically, everyone knows that no one’s holding them accountable, so they can get away with doing whatever they want.”

Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, floor manager for the administration and regulation budget, said during the meeting he wasn’t aware of the outstanding cases. “I think, what, two or three years ago we passed something on this and I guess I didn’t know that there was any need to follow up on that,” he said.

Really, senator? I guess he wasn’t paying attention when Petersen raised these very same questions on the Senate floor on April 25 before the Senate voted to confirm Steen as director of the department. (Hat tip to Laura Belin, who posted on that speech in her Bleeding Heartland blog.)

Petersen said Guth, after last week’s meeting, copied her on a letter asking the same set of questions of the department. She said three GOP senators told her after the meeting they didn’t think her questions were out of line. But why didn’t they pay attention when she raised the same questions nearly a month ago?

Reynolds and lawmakers of both parties have spent years talking about Iowa’s workforce shortage and the need to attract workers. The GOP’s ideas for attracting workforce so far this year has included vilifying teachers, slashing unemployment benefits and making child care more expensive for low-income Iowans. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the example they’re setting for how to value and retain workers.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.