Sexual harassment allegations in Iowa Senate should be investigated: Branstad

Fired Iowa Senate aide alleges women 'objectified ... ridiculed' in workplace

Rod Boshart
Published: May 20 2013 | 8:52 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 3:33 pm in

UPDATE: Top Iowa Senate leaders said Monday allegations of sexual harassment made by a former GOP staffer would be investigated if a formal complaint was filed, otherwise the situation would be viewed as an internal personnel matter unless something further develops.

Claims of improper behavior and inappropriate comments came to light Sunday when Kirsten Anderson, who worked for five years as Senate GOP communications director, described to a Des Moines TV station the “toxic” workplace environment she allegedly faced at the Capitol.

Anderson, who could not be reached for comment Monday, told WHO-TV she and her female co-workers have been subjected to harassment from Senate staff and from senators, too. Among her allegations were claims that women were “objectified” and “ridiculed” in workplace.

Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, was unavailable for comment Monday, but his top aide, Ed Failor, Jr., the chief of staff for Senate Republicans, said Anderson was “terminated for cause” last Friday after failing to improve her substandard work performance, adding “an environment of sexual harassment is not and will not ever be tolerated under the leadership of Bill Dix.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said “I know nothing about them” in response to questions about Anderson’s allegations, adding “if a complaint is filed, we will certainly deal with it.”

Mike Marshall, secretary of the Iowa Senate, said Anderson – who was being paid just under $60,000 annually at the time she was terminated -- has not filed a complaint with his office Monday. According to Anderson, she presented documentation of her own complaints about sexual harassment to her supervisor on Friday, asking for changes in the workplace environment but was fired later that day.

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Red Oak and the only female member of the Republican caucus leadership team, said she never had any first-hand experience with harassment in the Senate.

She added that reports of such behavior should be investigated.

“I think if there is a specific incident that (Anderson) knows about, she should bring that forward,” Ernst said. “I want to make clear that harassment is not tolerated.”

Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said she has been apprised of the situation by Dix and was told “that issue was coming and that it had been well documented.” She said she considered it “a personnel issue in that caucus that Sen. Dix is handling” although she acknowledged that Senate leaders planned to review their sexual harassment procedures during the interim.

“This summer we’re going to sit down as leaders to make sure that we have a very strong policy and procedures on sexual harassment and other issues,” Jochum said.

Marshall said he also had discussed the matter with Dix and it is being viewed as “a confidential personnel matter.” He added that the Senate has had a sexual harassment policy in place for about 20 years that has been updated from time to time and mandatory training is provided for staff, although it may have been several years since a training video and other information was provided to senators on a voluntary basis.

Asked to respond during his weekly news conference, Gov. Terry Branstad said the allegations of sexual harassment should be investigated, but he added that it is up to the legislative branch to pursue it as a separate, independent branch of government.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who served as a state senator in 2009 and 2010, said she did not experience any of the negative work environment or improper behavior that Anderson alleged during her time in the Senate, and Sen. Sandy Greiner, R-Keota, said she was “more than a little stunned about” the charges.

In her TV interview, Anderson characterized the harassment as “things that would make you blush.”

“Things that you don’t want your daughter, your mother, your sister having to put up with and that sort of attitude about women, objectifying women, it has to change,” she added.

According to Anderson, the harassment came from male staff and from “legislators as well.”

“…I feel it was extremely inappropriate,” Anderson said, “and constituents would not be happy that their legislators were saying these things.”

However, Anderson said she is “not ready right now to name names.”

Greiner, in an interview with The Gazette, said Anderson’s charges were “news to me.”

“I was more than a little stunned about it,” she said. “I was a little taken aback by the timing of her dismissal. Her work was less than stellar. If they had waited three or four weeks after the session was over and dismissed her I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Greiner said the charges being made by Anderson were “vague,” and noted that “she never approached me as a mentor and said, ‘I have this problem.’”

The Keota Republican said “I have not witnessed anything from the staff or from my colleagues,” but she added that the situation “puts a cloud over every male who works in the chamber. Quite honestly, no one has ever treated me with anything less than dignity,” she added.

Anderson had been one of the 11 members of the Iowa Senate GOP Caucus Staff who work for the 24 Republican state senators, helping draft and follow legislation and craft the caucus’ political messages. Two other women work on the staff according to the office website.

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