HARTFORD, Conn. — Despite a lack of sexual harassment complaints filed against Connecticut lawmakers, the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders want to determine if any policy changes are needed and give any possible victims an opportunity to come forward.
The lawmakers will hold a public hearing next Monday at the Legislative Office Building, where invited guests and members of the public are expected to testify.
“We need to take a real hard look at what we do currently, the structure we have currently and is it enough,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat.
Over the past 15 months, dozens of state lawmakers across the U.S. have been forced out of office, removed from leadership roles, reprimanded or publicly accused of sexual misconduct during a mounting backlash to such behavior by those in power.
The Associated Press recently requested records under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act from all four legislative caucuses and the Office of Legislative Management, which oversees the state Capitol complex, regarding any sexual misconduct or harassment complaints against lawmakers over the past decade. All reported having no records of formal complaints. They also said they had no records of financial settlements paid because of misconduct or harassment.
Caucus staff did confirm that several former lawmakers in the past were verbally reprimanded for inappropriate behavior.
Last month, Hartford Rep. Angel Arce resigned effective April 9 after the Hartford Courant published affectionate texts the 57-year-old grandfather had sent to a 16-year-girl in 2015. The messages included, “you are so beautiful and gorgeous” and “I think we going to keep a lot of secrets between us.”
Two of his fellow Democrats, Aresimowicz and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had called on him to step down. Aresimowicz also stripped Arce of his leadership and committee responsibilities. Arce has denied any wrongdoing and said he resigned because he didn’t want his “presence to be distraction to the very important work that occurs at the Capitol.”
Speaking for House Republicans, Minority Leader Themis Klarides said they “have always kept a close eye” on allegations.
“If we hear even a whiff of anybody, whether it’s a staffer or a legislator, complaining about even the slightest thing, we go in, we have a conversation, we see what’s going on and we try to nip it in the bud, if it hasn’t become something yet,” she said.
Klarides said that legislative leaders from both parties agreed they should see if the current harassment reporting process can be improved. The General Assembly last updated its policies in 2014.
“I’m sure there are things that we’re not doing that we don’t know about,” she said. “That’s why I want people with experience to tell us.”
Aresimowicz noted how the employee handbook requires people to report harassment to the chief of staff of the pertinent legislative caucus, such as his House Democrats. He said that process is problematic.
“What if you’re a lobbyist?” he said. “You’re going to go to the chief of staff of a caucus that your livelihood is dependent upon?”
State Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat, is a former lieutenant at the Department of Correction who joined other female correctional officers in 2003 to protest harassment within the state agency. She welcomes the upcoming hearing.
“A lot of times people don’t come forward,” she said. “We found there were many more people that just felt that they couldn’t come forward because it would impact their trajectory within that job … and they were afraid if they made a complaint, it would be seen that they were not strong.”