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Fear of 'blowback' prevents women from coming forward with harassment complaints

Fear of 'blowback' prevents women from coming forward with harassment complaints

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Allegations of inappropriate comments from state Rep. Luke Simons date to 2018, but no formal harassment complaints have been filed, documents made public this week show.

One reason women are reluctant to come forward with formal complaints is a fear of “blowback” that could undermine their ability to do their jobs, said a Legislative Council employee who spoke to the Tribune on condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution.

“Some legislators think that this is not a big deal,” the woman said.

The Legislative Council is the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm. Director John Bjornson has kept notes of his discussions with staff and legislative leaders about inappropriate behavior by legislators.

In a file about Simons, R-Dickinson, women allege he has exhibited “creepy” behavior such as talking about shopping for thongs at Victoria’s Secret, commenting on beautiful eyelashes and giving a woman a shoulder massage.

Simons denied making the statements that are alleged in the documents.

“The people that know me in my area know that I wouldn't talk like that,” he said in an interview with the Tribune. “This is nothing more than a liberal agenda to attack conservative legislators.”

In a March 19, 2019, note, Bjornson documented a conversation he’d had with Majority Leader Chet Pollert and Assistant Majority Leader Scott Louser about inappropriate comments by Simons directed toward a staff member.

“Rep. Louser inquired whether she would have done anything to give Rep. Simons the impression she would be interested in his advances. I responded that would be the last thing she would do and she has acted in a professional manner,” Bjornson wrote.

On Feb. 25, 2020, a woman who had raised concerns about Simons wrote an email following a discussion she had with Louser.

“Rep. Louser then said he thinks Rep. Simons is ‘harmless,’ ‘naive,’ and ‘just from the ranch.’ I do not agree with this assessment,” she wrote, adding that Louser characterized his conversations with Simons as calls for him to “grow up.”

In a note dated Feb. 1 of this year, Bjornson wrote: “Clearly there is a major reluctance to file a formal complaint because they believe there is a lack of support from legislators for staff regardless of the knowledge that certain legislators are habitual offenders of decency.”

Louser and Pollert did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Legislative leaders adopted a workplace harassment policy in 2018 that outlines a process for handling complaints. A group of legislators would decide how to handle such a complaint, including whether to conduct an independent investigation. No formal complaints have been filed since the policy took effect.

Legislative Council staff who have raised concerns about inappropriate behavior by Simons have chosen not to file complaints.

“Because we haven’t had a test case, we don’t know what the legislators’ reaction would be,” said one of the women. “It would take a tremendous amount of courage, in my opinion, for somebody to step forward and to be the first one to do that.”

One concern is that legislators or members of the public would perceive the woman as being overly sensitive or overreacting, she said. Complaining about a member of the Legislature is different than a private workplace because matters involving an elected official become public, she added.

“It’s not easy to come forward with these issues anyway because they're embarrassing,” she said. “When you add ridicule or potential workplace retaliation or other things that could damage a person’s reputation as the complainant, that’s a huge risk.”

The woman said she’s felt supported by Legislative Council and has good relationships with a majority of legislators.

“This is a wonderful job. And my colleagues are amazing. But this is one aspect that’s been difficult. When you’re working with an elected official, there’s not much you can do to remedy a situation when you’re staff,” she said. “It’s not something that our office can change necessarily. It’s up to the legislators to kind of police themselves.”

Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said she was asked by Legislative Council to document a conversation she observed on Jan. 27 in which Simons told an intern “I would like to put my hands in your hair.”

“It was very awkward. It was just a weird conversation,” Pyle said. “It made people uncomfortable.”

Pyle said she has talked to Simons about how he needs to be “a little more self-aware.”

Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, posted to Twitter that an incident involving Simons yelling and swearing at her in the cafeteria this week was the “last straw.” The incident occurred after Hanson asked Simons to wear a mask in the cafeteria. Simons later apologized for his language.

“This week, many men & women reached out to me w/their own stories about Simons' behavior - lobbyists, citizens, other state employees & legislators from both parties. There is an extremely concerning pattern of behavior. The capitol must be a professional and safe place to work,” Hanson posted.

The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party issued a statement Thursday calling Republican leadership’s response to the allegations against Simons “reprehensible.”

“There are tones of victim blaming and making excuses for Simons as if he is a teenage boy who ‘doesn’t know better,’” Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said. "The North Dakota Democratic-NPL stands in full support of the women who have experienced sexual harassment, and we commend their bravery in coming forward and reporting these horrific incidents. We are left to wonder how many incidents have gone unreported.”

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said she was “disgusted” to read the documents released this week.

“It pains me to think that we have competent, hardworking professional women working for the Legislature who have been subjected to behavior like this,” Oban said. “Clearly we need to be better. This better be a wakeup call to do it.”

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, is shown in the North Dakota House chamber on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

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