Megan Bailiff was a fellow in the congressional office of Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye in 1988 when she says she was consistently sexually harassed by the senator, and then ostracized by her colleagues when she tried to tell them about it.
Thirty years later, she decided to tell her story, inspired by the #MeToo groundswell that has a lot of women now talking about their own experiences with sexual harassment.
But why did we decide to tell her story, and why now, especially since Inouye has been dead for more than five years?
Those are questions we asked ourselves over the last few weeks as we worked to corroborate Bailiff’s assertions and at least determine whether her allegations rose to the level of a valid news story.
In recent months, it’s become clear that sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace and other professional settings did not end in 1992 when Anita Hill’s explosive testimony during the widely televised confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas brought the issue into our living rooms.
If the #MeToo movement has done nothing else, it’s demonstrated that questionable behavior by people at even the highest levels of business, government, politics, the entertainment industry and other sectors has continued despite broad public awareness that it just isn’t right.
Moreover, there continues to be a culture of silence and an unwillingness by good people to speak up when they know something bad is happening.
Once we determined that Bailiff’s story was credible and believable, we realized it was an important story to tell. A very powerful elected leader — arguably the most important political leader in Hawaii and a politician of incredible national significance — was being accused of seriously questionable behavior.
And, possibly even worse, the people close to him were allegedly willing to turn a blind eye, no matter the consequences for Bailiff or what could be others in her position.
Pervasive sexual harassment is always hard for women to talk about but it’s especially difficult in political circles because so much is at stake and so much depends on the personal whims of powerful elected officials. Inouye certainly is the epitome of this situation. People are very scared about crossing someone like Inouye who could do real damage to their careers, their initiatives and even their communities.
Hawaii is not exempt from sexual harassment problems that have surfaced on the mainland, as we witnessed recently with the forced resignation of longtime state lawmaker Joe Souki.
The culture of silence exists in Hawaii. Many people told us Souki’s sketchy behavior toward women was an open secret and had been for years.
That allegedly was the case for Inouye where, Bailiff told us, his staff either shrugged it off as that’s just the way he is or even actively tried to protect him by shutting this woman out when she tried to appeal to them for help.
It’s not the first time sexual misconduct allegations against Inouye have become public. In 1992 his hairdresser, Lenore Kwock, accused him of raping her as well as other unwanted sexual behavior, charges that died down when Kwock and other women who also said they’d been harassed declined to cooperate with Senate ethics investigators.
So when Megan Bailiff came to us with her story it was part of a pattern of alleged behavior.
Besides confirming numerous small details about Bailiff and her position in Inouye’s office, we sought out others who would have been in a position to have witnessed or heard about what Inouye was doing.
Not everyone corroborated Bailiff. Patrick DeLeon, Inouye’s former chief of staff, denied Bailiff’s contention that she told him about the sexual harassment, saying that is the kind of thing you never forget. Jennifer Goto Sabas, a longtime Inouye staffer who later became his chief of staff, said that she had forgotten the details of a conversation with Bailiff about alleged sexual harassment.
But people who had no reason to cover for the senator did back up Bailiff’s story.
Besides interviewing another former Sea Grant fellow whom Bailiff had told about the problem years ago, we talked twice to the colleague who had worked in Inouye’s office with Bailiff. This woman also was afraid to have her identity revealed because she currently works in Hawaii government. But she described going to Inouye’s hotel room that night in Atlanta when Bailiff found herself in an uncomfortable situation, and told the same story.
We sent a reporter to Bailiff’s house to interview her on video. We reviewed 2011 records from Bailiff’s divorce in which she and her ex-husband referenced the sexual harassment. Bailiff told us her story multiple times and each time was consistent.
In the end, we decided that shining a light on sexual harassment, no matter whom it involves, is an important public discussion. We can’t be a part of the culture of silence.
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at email@example.com or call her at 808-377-0561.