Maryland House approves stronger sexual harassment policies

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously Monday to strengthen the General Assembly’s policies on sexual harassment to cover lobbyists and create a framework for an independent investigator to handle complaints.

Earlier this month, a state senator accused a lobbyist of inappropriately touching her in a bar near the statehouse. The lobbyist has denied the allegations. Also this month, three female state lawmakers publicly discussed sexual harassment they’ve experienced while working in the statehouse.

Del. Ariana Kelly, who sponsored the measure, said discussions about improving the policies began in the fall of 2016, when five female lawmakers first talked with each other about some of their experiences in the state capital.

“We realized we had some shared similar experiences, and we thought that breaking the silence would really increase our power, which we have seen in the #MeToo movement,” Kelly, a Democrat, said while explaining her vote.

The House voted 138-0 for the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

The measure would allow the assembly’s Joint Legislative Committee on Ethics to refer sexual harassment complaints to an independent investigator. It would require referral to an investigator at the request of a complainant. Now, harassment complaints can be filed with the legislature’s human resources department or the presiding officers of the assembly. Complaints can be referred to the legislature’s ethics committee.

The bill also would prohibit a registered lobbyist from harassing other lobbyists, lawmakers, interns, pages and others working in the executive and legislative branches. While complaints against lawmakers will be addressed by the legislature’s ethics committee, allegations against lobbyists would be handled by the State Ethics Commission, which already has jurisdiction over lobbyists. The commission would create a workgroup to determine potential sanctions lobbyists could face, under the bill. The commission also would add sexual harassment provisions into their training course for registered and prospective lobbyists.

The bill incorporates recommendations submitted last month by the legislature’s 60-member women’s caucus.

In December, a committee that sets rules for the General Assembly approved making the number of sexual harassment incidents reported against Maryland lawmakers or their staff public in an annual report, which will not name anyone. In January, legislative leaders formed a commission to examine workplace polices on sexual harassment in all three branches of state government. The panel will review state policies and solicit input from business leaders and policy experts.

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