Authorities launch inquiry into Statehouse sexual harassment
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — State authorities said Wednesday they have launched an inquiry in response to a Rhode Island lawmaker saying that a higher-ranking legislator told her sexual favors would allow her bills to go further.
Democratic Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office and state police said they are working together to conduct what they termed a “review” and “inquiry” after state Rep. Teresa Tanzi came forward. The agencies did not elaborate and said they would not comment further.
Tanzi, a Democrat elected in 2010, has not identified the legislator who made the comment or said when it happened. She told The Providence Journal on Tuesday that she had experienced sexual harassment at the Statehouse.
“I have been told sexual favors would allow my bills to go further,” Tanzi said, adding that the lawmaker who made the comment was “not someone who was my equal. ... It was someone who had a higher-ranking position.”
Tanzi told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she had not yet spoken to state police or the attorney general and she declined to say whether she planned to do so. She said she was focused on looking at possible changes in the law, such as improving protections for nontraditional workers in jobs as varied as legislators and Lyft drivers. She also noted another step, announced by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello after she came forward: training on sexual harassment issues for members of the General Assembly. She said both are important.
Asked if she supported a criminal charge against the legislator who made the remark to her, she responded: “The best outcome for me right now is to look ahead and move forward and to continue to make it so that the next generation of children don’t have to endure the same issues that we’re facing today.”
Tanzi spoke out Tuesday as thousands of other women came forward to say they, too, had been victims of sexual assault or harassment. It was part of a call to action that trended on social media using #metoo following Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall over allegations of sexual misconduct spanning decades.
The state Republican Party on Wednesday called on state and federal authorities to investigate what they termed “a sex-for-legislation racket.”
Jeff Pine, a former Republican state attorney general not involved in the inquiry, said it was possible state authorities could be considering whether extortion or bribery laws were broken.
“Extortion is compelling somebody to do something against their will in exchange for a promise,” he said. “If you do A, then I will do B. And A is obviously against her will.”
He added: “The flip side of it is, if you don’t do A, we’re going to make your life miserable.”
Pine said whether there is a crime depends on the nature of the communication, the nature of the threat — if there was one — and the intent of the person who said it.
“It’s not black and white, but it’s certainly something I would think they would be thinking of,” he said.
Bribery of a public official would be in the same arena, if something was promised, he said.