Sexual misconduct spotlight shifts from Hollywood to state capitols

The tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations that started in Hollywood and the media has swept into statehouses across the country, with state lawmakers and others facing new accusations and legislative leaders grappling with how to handle the groundswell. 

The claims have touched off new investigations and policy changes and, in one case, swift punishment for a senior lawmaker. 

On Monday, Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Jack Latvala was removed from his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee following complaints of sexual harassment from at least seven different women.

“While the independent, third party investigation regarding Senator Latvala is pending, I believe it is in the best interest of the Senate for another Senator to temporarily serve as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations,” Florida Senate President Joe Negron said in an announcement.

The women have accused Latvala of sexual misconduct over the course of several years. Complaints include nonconsensual touching of their private parts. Some women also said they felt degraded because Latvala made comments about their weight and breast size.

Latvala has strongly denied the allegations and dismissed claims as “fake news.”

The situation in Florida isn’t a one-off.

Over the weekend, the Legislative Ethics Commission in Illinois announced former federal prosecutor Julie Porter had been tapped to investigate sexual harassment complaints at the state capitol.

Porter’s post had been vacant for almost two years. She faces a backlog of at least 27 complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Separately, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, has proposed legislation requiring sexual harassment awareness training for anyone working in the capitol. Separately, close to 300 signatures have been collected in an open letter describing harassment against women working on political campaigns or in the legislature.

'Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.'

- Illinois letter describing sexual harassment in politics

“Every industry has its own version of the casting couch,” the letter reads. “Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.”

In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called for the resignation of any lawmaker or government employee who has settled sexual harassment claims.

"There have been any number of allegations in recent days that would indicate that certain individuals have been anything but faithful and true," Bevin said. "These allegations have not been denied by anyone. These allegations are increasingly becoming corroborated."

The governor’s comments came after fellow Republican and state House Speaker Jeff Hoover settled a complaint involving sexually explicit texts with a female staffer out of court. Another female staffer claims she was placed on leave for reporting a toxic workplace environment.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that California state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon hired two outside firms to investigate multiple claims of sexual harassment. In the past five years, the legislature has paid out more than $580,000 to settle cases involving harassment and racism. One $100,000 payout involved a legislative staffer who said she was terminated after she reported a California assemblyman exposed himself to her.

Lawmakers in Oregon and Rhode Island have also spoken up against colleagues who they say made inappropriate advances. Some claim senior colleagues suggesting sexual favors could be traded to advance bills.

Part of the challenge has been trying to reverse an ingrained culture where people who report the actions fear retaliation. But as more and more lawmakers come forward about their own experiences, states are working to put protections in place to stop a cycle of harassment and intimidation.

In the nation’s capital, four senators spoke out about their experiences with inappropriate behavior.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill recounted the sexual harassment she faced as a young legislator. McCaskill claims that when she was in the state legislature during the 1980s, she asked the speaker of the Missouri House if he had any tips on getting a piece of legislation out of committee.

“He looked at me, and he paused, and he said, ‘Well, did you bring your knee pads?’” she recalled on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently recounted how she was harassed when she started out as a law professor. Warren said colleague of hers often made inappropriate jokes, talked about her clothes and one day invited her into his office.

“I just sat and shook and thought, ‘What had I done to bring this on?” the Democratic senator said.

Warren said her colleague slammed the door and “lunged” for her.

“It’s like a bad cartoon. He’s chasing me around the desk and trying to get his hands on me.”

On Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called on House members and their staff to complete sexual harassment training.

“We can and should lead by example,” Ryan said in a letter. "Our goal must be a culture where everyone who works in our offices feels safe and able to fulfill their duties."