Wisconsin state senator’s accuser torn on complaint release
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A former legislative aide who accused then-state Sen. Spencer Coggs of sexual harassment eight years ago says she’s torn over whether lawmakers should release sexual misconduct complaints.
Jana Harris told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that she believed the Legislature’s human resources officials would protect her but that instead their response led to Coggs firing her.
“I understand protecting the victims’ identity and believe me, after what I’ve gone through I can truly appreciate that,” she said. “But at the same time with everything that’s happened, it should be called out. But leaving it up to the victim (to tell their story publicly), I can understand that.”
Harris’ case resurfaced this week after Senate officials revealed the state Justice Department settled her claims for $75,000. News of the settlement broke days after legislative leaders declared that sexual harassment complaints filed within either house are not public documents and will remain confidential.
Harris was working as an aide in Coggs’ office in 2009 when she began complaining to the Legislature’s human resources division about Coggs’ behavior, according to an administrative law judge’s summary of the case.
She alleged that Coggs told her she was showing too much cleavage and she wasn’t black enough. Coggs and Harris are both black. He made comments about black genitalia and asked her if she liked “white meat” when she asked for the same afternoon off as a white male co-worker, implying they planned to meet for a tryst, according to the summary.
He also joined other male workers in the office in oggling female joggers from the office window and called her fiance “big and gay.” When she told him that she would tell her finance about the comments, Coggs said he had bullets, the summary said.
Coggs has denied sexually harassing any of his employees. But Harris said things got so bad she had to see a therapist.
The Legislature’s top two human resources officials at the time, Joel Warnick and Mark Kaeppel, along with Rob Marchant, then the Senate’s chief clerk, met with Assistant Attorney General Richard Moriarity about Harris’ claims. Marchant, Warnick and Kaeppel met with Coggs in July 2009 and suggested he hold staff meetings to discuss professional conduct, according to the summary.
Coggs chastised Harris immediately after meeting with the officials, saying she shouldn’t have gone to human resources. He then stopped giving her work assignments and wouldn’t include her in staff meetings, the documents said.
Coggs fired Harris the next year after Senate Democrats lost their majority in the November elections. Harris was an at-will employee, meaning Coggs could fire her at any time without cause. Still, Harris filed a complaint with the state Equal Rights Division alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination in early 2011.
Moriarity tried to discredit Harris as he defended the Legislature against her complaint by alleging she cheated on her boyfriend and questioning her honesty, according to the judge’s summary.
“It was a different climate then,” Harris said during the interview with the AP. “I was attacked more than I was supported. They drug it out, attacked my character, examined every little part of my life. And I’m not the one accused of doing anything.”
She did eventually win the settlement, although the judge noted in her summary that much of her testimony went unchallenged because Coggs didn’t testify.
Coggs, who now works as the Milwaukee treasurer, issued a statement Monday insisting he did nothing wrong and pointing out he wasn’t a signatory on the deal.
“In over 35 years in public office, at no time have I engaged in or condoned behavior which could be viewed as harassment or discrimination with respect to the Complainant or anyone else who has worked for me,” he said.
Warnick retired from the Legislature after the 2010 elections. He issued a statement saying Marchant directed the human resources office’s response. He said he had no further comment.
Marchant said in a three-sentence email Thursday that Harris’ reports were taken “very seriously” and he followed the DOJ’s advice.
Kaeppel didn’t immediately reply to an email.
Harris said she understands why so many women have waited so long to make sexual misconduct allegations against so many men in politics, entertainment and the media.
“This stuff nationally brought back a lot of bad memories,” she said. “I reported mine and still went through hell.”
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