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North Dakota House expels Simons in historic vote
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North Dakota House expels Simons in historic vote

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North Dakota’s House of Representatives in a historic move Thursday expelled a Republican member embroiled in sexual harassment allegations made by female legislative staff, interns and fellow representatives.

The House voted 69-25 to expel Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, after a four-hour floor session, reaching the necessary threshold of a two-thirds majority vote.

The expulsion is believed to be the first in state history. Even the format was unusual -- the resolution was introduced and debated in a House committee of the whole, a procedure not seen since 1967.

Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, one of the woman who reported being made uncomfortable by Simons, during debate said expulsion would show "Legislative Council: You matter. Legislative interns: You matter. Staff: You matter. And to others that have been victims: You matter. And to my legislative colleagues, you matter, too."

Following the vote, Simons referred reporters to his attorney, Lynn Boughey, who said they will review their options, and "as discussed, taking this to the North Dakota Supreme Court is an option."

"I have to talk to my client to determine how he wants to proceed," Boughey told reporters.

Varied reactions

After the floor session, Simons posted to Facebook, "Well that’s it, no hearing, no trial and no evidence. Just based off of accusations that were made, I was expelled from the house and now I’m out of the legislature."

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, declined to comment on the vote.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, who co-sponsored the resolution for expulsion with Pollert, said the vote was "certainly not something that anyone takes pride in."

Simons told the House he "wholeheartedly" wanted a public hearing into the allegations.

"You're guilty by just an accusation," he said. "So, I'm not calling anybody a liar. I would say, let's have fun. Let's open this up, and I don't want any deals at all ... This is all hearsay evidence."

After the committee on the whole voted 66-28 for a do-pass recommendation on the resolution of expulsion, a man shouted from the gallery, "You're cowards and a disgrace to the people of North Dakota and the people who elected you." House Speaker Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, admonished the man's comments and brought the chamber to order.

House Republican leaders last week had called on Simons to resign after a 14-page file detailing the women’s uncomfortable encounters with him was made public.

The barber and rancher has denied any misconduct and retained Boughey to fight the allegations.

Simons was first elected in 2016 and was reelected last year with 39% of the vote in a five-way race. District 36 Republicans' executive committee will appoint a new representative. Chairman John Enderle did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

'A somber day'

The Legislature's nonpartisan research agency of financial and legal experts maintained the file of reports of female staff and interns who felt uncomfortable around Simons, dating to 2018.

The file includes reports of times he allegedly made advances toward them, commented on their appearances, attempted to give one staff member a shoulder massage, and spoke about shopping for thong underwear.

Legislative Council Director John Bjornson released the file in response to open records requests following an obscene outburst by Simons in the Capitol cafeteria last week toward two House Democrats regarding wearing a face mask. Simons later apologized.

O'Brien said in a statement Saturday that she moved desks to avoid Simons' "harassing behavior" about her appearance and clothing. She said she stopped wearing a certain dress to avoid Simons' unwanted comments.

Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, reported comments Simons allegedly made about an intern, wanting to put his hands in her hair.

Simons also made comments about Pyle that she found inappropriate, such as telling her he was "impressed that your husband let you do this," in reference to her being a legislator and her husband staying home with their four children.

O'Brien on Thursday asked lawmakers how they could "turn a blind eye" to the reports of Simons' behavior.

"Women should not have to endure such behavior, period, but especially when working for the people of North Dakota," she said.

Pyle said the day was "a somber day," but that the House "can't stand" for unwanted sexual harassment and bullying. 

"Over his time in the office, Rep. Simons has shown his continuous disregard for anyone but himself," she told the House.

'Responsibility to protect'

During floor debate, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said Simons "has been counseled on his behavior multiple times," and "we have a responsibility to protect these women from the inappropriate conduct that we know is occurring."

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, said he was "really bothered" by Simons' behavior that he had witnessed and was described by Pyle.

"I'm an old sailor and it bothered me, what I heard," Johnson said. 

A report in the file said House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Louser, R-Minot, in a 2019 meeting in response to a report of inappropriate comments by Simons asked whether a legislative staff member "would have done anything to give Rep. Simons the impression she would be interested in his advances." In 2020, he told a staff member he thought that Simons was "'harmless,' 'naive,' and 'just from the ranch.'"

Louser told the House on Thursday that his intention with his questions "was to attempt to understand the severity of the situation and get a full understanding of what took place."

"I have to admit, I felt sick in the portrayal of that conversation. By no means did I intend to come across uncaring," he said. "For anyone that felt that way, I'm truly sorry."

Concern for rules

Expulsion opponents said the House wasn't following the proper rules for procedure or giving Simons due process, and they called for an investigation into Simons' reported behavior.

"If we do do this expulsion, everything we've done here is in vain," said Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton. "There will be no reason for anybody to follow any law that we pass here if we're not going to respect a man's due process."

Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, said "if we don't follow our own rules, then we are adding misconduct on top of misconduct."

Pollert gave final remarks, telling the House "this is not about someone occasionally using coarse language or saying something that was misconstrued."

"This is about a pattern of inappropriate behavior and about someone who was given multiple chances to avoid being in this situation," he said.

Failed alternatives

Simons' attorney had disputed the House’s ability to expel Simons under the circumstances of the allegations against him. Beyond censure, Boughey said, the House could only impeach Simons. Impeachment would involve a Senate trial.

Some representatives sought alternatives to expulsion. A motion by Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, to amend the resolution to a censure failed 28-66.

Pollert said the censure "does not go far enough." A censure is formal and severe reprimand, requiring a majority vote.

"There's nothing to it. It doesn't even look like a slap on the wrist," Pollert told the House.

A motion by Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, for an investigation under the Legislature's workplace harassment policy to determine appropriate action failed 31-63.

Another motion, by Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, for an investigation under a state law for conduct of legislative investigations failed 29-65.

The livestreamed House floor session garnered 8,969 total live views. As a comparison, an average of 645 live viewers tuned into the House floor sessions in the 35 days before the Legislature's midsession break last week.

Security at the Capitol was enhanced after the vote. Two North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers were on the ground floor of the Capitol, below the House chamber. A Capitol security guard was outside the west doors to the building. Simons met with his family at his desk in the House chamber after the vote.

No expulsion is believed to have ever previously occurred in state history. In 1913, a resolution came forth demanding a representative apologize for insulting the speaker of the House, on penalty of potential expulsion. The representative apologized.

The House in 1919 looked into a state representative being offered a $2,000 bribe to vote against bills establishing the Industrial Commission and the Bank of North Dakota. The representative refused to say who offered him the money, and the matter was dropped without sufficient evidence for criminal prosecution.

Two senators were censured for insults in 1890, in the state's first legislative session. One of them was the Senate president pro tempore, who was replaced.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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