Former House Speaker Joe Souki’s forced resignation after admitting to sexual harassment allegations is prompting legislative leaders to rethink how the state House and Senate deal with complaints in the future.

“This is an issue that really deserves thorough examination,” says House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti.

But don’t expect any changes until next year.

House leaders want to appoint a working group to study possible rule changes and Senate leaders are hoping lawmakers can agree on a uniform policy that would cover both chambers.

While the Senate already has a stronger policy than the House, Au Belatti says the House would need to vote on rule changes and that typically happens in the beginning of a new session. “It won’t happen until then,” she said.

State Capitol Building.
Lawmakers are spending late nights mulling over bills at the Hawaii State Capitol and some say revising their sexual harassment policy will have to wait. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The allegations against Souki spanned multiple years. But even though the House has a process for handling such complaints internally, several women turned to the State Ethics Commission instead.

The ethics investigation revealed that the House puts the speaker in charge of all complaints, discouraging his or her potential victims from coming forward.

House Speaker Scott Saiki plans to appoint a working group after session finishes in May to review the policy and make recommendations. There’s no specific timeline yet — he doesn’t want the process to be rushed.

“I think it’s important that the working group do a thorough job,” he says.

Au Belatti wants to take time to consult experts and vet a new policy before putting it into place.

But that could be bad news for anyone who might have a complaint against the House speaker this year. The rules say that complaints go to supervisors, the House speaker or his designee, House Clerk Brian Takeshita, who as a matter of practice notifies the speaker of every complaint. There’s no formal third party alternative, although Takeshita recently said that it’s likely such complaints would be handled by the vice speaker.

The House policy also doesn’t explicitly include lobbyists or vendors, some of whom were among Souki’s alleged victims. Takeshita said in practice such victims could file complaints under the existing House policy.

The Hawaii Senate’s current policy could be a better alternative for the House to consider. The Senate’s policy is much more comprehensive and detailed than the House’s — so much so that the National Conference of State Legislatures listed it as one of five model policies.

Saiki says the House might work with the Senate to improve its policy but doesn’t plan to adopt it outright.

Sen. Laura Thielen says she’s worried that the Senate policy still doesn’t provide enough avenues for victims to come forward. The policy also relies on the Senate President or a designee to handle complaints. Unless you’re prepared to file a lawsuit or go to a separate agency like the Civil Rights Commission, there’s not an explicit third-party alternative.

That’s a problem, according to Barbara Bryant, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in sexual harassment. She says it would be preferable to enlist outside attorneys to review complaints and conduct thorough, third-party investigations.

She doesn’t think it makes sense to wait until next year to improve legislative policies.

“There needs to be some kind of baseline investigative process that’s set up quite promptly that would be put into place within a month or two,” she says.

Otherwise, you’re giving people with authority free rein to act badly, Bryant says, adding: “It’s often the people with the most power that do the harassing.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi says he’s meeting with Saiki later this week to discuss possible collaboration on their sexual harassment policies. He thinks it’s a good idea to have one uniform policy for the building.

“There needs to be some kind of baseline investigative process that’s set up quite promptly that would be put into place within a month or two.” — Barbara Bryant, sexual harassment expert

But if the House decides to move forward on its own, Kouchi says he’s not sure yet whether the Senate will update its policy at all.

When it comes to complaints against the Senate President, Kouchi says that “everybody knows through the training … that they would report to the Vice President.”

If the Senate does decide to clarify that, it’s possible the policy could be updated sooner than next year. The Senate already plans to meet to confirm two judicial appointments during the interim.

It doesn’t look like anything will change before the session wraps up next month. The Legislature is about to enter conference committee, a brief period of intense negotiations on bills leading up to the final days of the session.

“I could definitely see the need to review our harassment policy and make certain that we have good checks and balance just in case it is the president or any other person in leadership for that matter so that people feel that they can have a path that they can take to resolve it,” says Senate Majority Floor Leader Will Espero. “This is just a bad time because we’re right in the middle of session and we need to finish in three weeks.”

Thielen thinks the Senate should do a better job not only of adding extra avenues for people to bring allegations but also publicizing the existing sexual harassment policy.

“Because we’ve been grappling with this issue throughout the nation there are real clear models for best practices or at least much better practices that it should be something that’s fairly simple to adopt some changes that would be a significant improvement,” she says. “I’d like to see us move forward with those.”

She wants the House and Senate to work together to make sure that they have a common approach. To her, it’s a matter of helping facilitate broader cultural change.

“We are viewed as policy leaders in the state and so I think it’s really important that we help set the tone so that we can achieve these much larger societal needs and changes … that need to take place,” she says.

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