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Lawmaker seeks to address sexual harassment at state house

November 12, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A top Rhode Island House Democrat has proposed creating a formal procedure for handling allegations of sexual harassment in the state legislature.

Rep. Chris Blazejewski, House deputy majority whip, said Monday that he’ll file legislation to require the General Assembly to employ an equal employment opportunity officer, who would investigate complaints of harassment or retaliation, and create a committee on professional conduct that could recommend discipline, WPRI-TV reported. The full House or Senate would vote on the recommendation.

Former Democratic Rep. Cale Keable was recently removed as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee after a months-old email surfaced in which another lawmaker accused him of sexual harassment. Keable was not re-elected. His lawyer has denied that Keable harassed Democratic Rep. Katherine Kazarian.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was criticized for not doing more to address sexual harassment after WPRI reported on the email about Keable. Mattiello has defended his approach and said he’s working with Blazejewski on the proposed legislation.

Currently, formal complaints of sexual harassment in the House must be filed with the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Mattiello’s office. Mattiello has said he’s not the proper person to handle such a complaint.

That approach appears to differ from how an allegation would be handled in the state Senate. In the state Senate, Spokesman Greg Pare has said that senators could report harassing behavior to the Senate president, as well as to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which is the legislature’s human resources department, or to the human rights commission. The Senate has a process for expelling a senator.

Common Cause Rhode Island, a good government group, said the House would also need to adopt rules allowing it to censure or expel members, otherwise there’s no mechanism to act on a disciplinary recommendation.

Blazejewski said it’s critical that the General Assembly reform its policies and procedures related to harassment and retaliation.

Kazarian said she’s interested in working on ways to protect people in the legislature from sexual harassment.

“All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation,” she said in a statement.

The legislative session begins in January.

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Information from: WPRI-TV, http://www.wpri.com

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