TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Legislature requires interns to sign confidentiality agreements that lawmakers say are intended to protect private political discussions but some legal experts contend could deter interns from reporting harassment or illegal activity.
The Kansas Star uncovered the agreement as part of an open records request as the Legislature discusses improving transparency and addressing sexual harassment and treatment of interns.
According to the agreement, interns who disclose activity in a lawmaker’s office could be fired. Employment law experts who reviewed the document for The Star said not only could it discourage interns from reporting harassment, it also might violate interns’ free speech rights.
“What do they have to hide?” asked Kelly McCambridge, an employment law attorney in the Kansas City area. “Seems they are more interested in protecting the reputations of their politicians than they are in protecting the safety of their student interns.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she thought the confidentiality agreement applied to political conversations, with no intention of protecting sexual harassers. But she acknowledged the three-paragraph agreement could have been writing more clearly.
“I think that maybe someone was trying to help people understand that communication in offices is confidential,” she said. “And it could have been written in a better way. And I’m sure it will be written with more complete language in the future, with more distinct clarity.”
The Star requested 15 years of codes of conduct, rules, dress code materials and any other documents about interns’ behavior at the Kansas Legislature. Speaker Pro Tem Schott Schwab, an Olathe Republican whose office plays a key role in administering the intern program, initially rejected the request but a month later provided no or barely any information concerning the internship program from 2009, 2010 and 2012. The newspaper reported the missing documents made it impossible to know when or why policies changed to require the confidentiality agreements.
A thorough explanation of the Statehouse’s sexual harassment policy does not appear until the 2018 intern handbook, which came months after reports that female interns were sometimes asked to drive male lawmakers home.
Schwab’s office said it didn’t know when interns were first asked to sign a confidentiality agreement or whose idea it was. The office noted that other legislative staff members also are subject to confidentiality obligations.
Ronald W. Nelson, an Overland Park attorney, called the confidentiality agreement “staggeringly broad.”
“It does not say anything about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior being excluded from its terms, which it should,” Nelson said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com