Ex-staffer: Sexual harassment rampant at Kansas Statehouse

October 25, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Sexual harassment is “rampant” at the Kansas Statehouse, an ex-Democratic legislative leader’s former chief of staff said Wednesday, adding that she once was asked for sex by a lawmaker.

Abbie Hodgson, the former staffer, also said that at least several female college students working as legislative interns “regularly” acted last year as after-hours designated drivers for intoxicated male lawmakers. She said that when she complained about it, the lawmakers switched to using male interns instead.

Hodgson was chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, Kansas, from December 2014 until July 2016. She said her experiences and conversations with other women convinced her that offending lawmakers might be warned to stop their behavior but won’t be punished.

“My intention is to call awareness to the fact that this problem exists and that the majority of women working in the Statehouse have had similar if not worse experiences than I have,” Hodgson said in an interview. “There needs to be a method to hold legislators accountable for their behavior outside of the ballot box.”

Hodgson declined to name the legislators involved in the incidents she described. She said she was propositioned at a fundraiser in early 2015 by a Democratic lawmaker who’d been drinking and when she refused him, “He told me that no one had ever told him no before.” Hodgson said when she complained to Democratic leaders, he was told to “knock it off.”

“There were no repercussions beyond that,” she said. “And I don’t think anyone was surprised by his behavior, and no one seemed remarkably concerned.”

Hodgson’s allegations were reported first by The Hill, based in Washington, where Hodgson now works for a nonprofit organization. She left her legislative job in July 2016, she said, by a mutual agreement with Burroughs after their working relationship soured.

Her comments came after an open letter in Illinois describing harassment and intimidation of women in state politics gathered dozens of signatures. California’s state Senate has hired a law firm to investigate what women described as a culture of sexual intimidation. Oregon and Rhode Island lawmakers have accused male colleagues of inappropriate behavior.

Burroughs, who is no longer minority leader but still serves in the Kansas Legislature, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

But current leaders in both parties disputed Hodgson’s description of sexual harassment as widespread in the state capital and said such allegations are taken seriously.

“We run the Legislature just like a business,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “If there’s an allegation, it’s investigated, and that individual is warned that it’s inappropriate.”

Kansas House leaders from both parties issued statements condemning sexual harassment and saying they do not tolerate it. Current Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said he trusts that Burroughs “handled the situation in accordance” with the anti-harassment policy set by top lawmakers in the past.

And Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, noted that he stripped one senator of committee assignments in 2006 and 2007 when complaints about his conduct arose.

Leaders in both parties also said Hodgson’s comments Wednesday were the first time they had heard allegations that interns acted as late-night designated drivers for lawmakers. Wagle said that if she had known, it would have been “stopped immediately.”

But Hodgson said top Democrats in the Kansas House made it clear to her that they would do little or nothing to lawmakers in response to inappropriate behavior. She said after one meeting in 2016, she was told “I needed to watch my back.”


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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