Sexual Harassment in the Senate

The men who recently came forward to the Globe to talk about sexual assaults by the Senate President’s husband have exposed some gaping holes in the Senate’s sexual harassment policies.

All members of the Senate deeply regret what they have experienced and are grateful to them for coming forward.

Through dozens of conversations since the news broke, Senators have come to a shared sense of the gravity of the situation and the need for firm action.

Over the past few years, we have spent a lot of time and effort to teach people about respectful behavior in the Senate as a workplace and to create channels to support reporting of workplace misbehavior. We have brought in some good outside expertise from employment lawyers.

Yet, employment lawyers lack experience in the legislative environment, so they haven’t really taught us much about how to control the potential for sexual harassment that arises from the power of the Senate. We have created channels for reporting of sexual harassment of senate employees, but not for harassment of people with matters before the Senate.

Another weakness in our policies is that all of the people to whom sexual harassment can be reported are to some degree under the control of the Senate President. So, when the perpetrator of harassment is close to the President, even internal victims may be unsure where to turn.

It appears that these weaknesses allowed a pattern of abuse by the Senate President’s husband to continue for several years. The allegations reported by the Globe are detailed and well-vetted.

Yesterday, all Democratic Senators met for 8 hours, sitting at tables pushed to form a circle so that all were equal in the dialog. The Republican Senators joined the circle for the latter part of the meeting.

The conversation was frank and emotional but respectful – people listened to each other and allowed their understanding to deepen.

The first concern of the Senate is for the victims, to give them a safe channel to come further forward and to give them the support that they need.

We welcomed the announcements by District Attorney Conley and Attorney General Healey that they will provide a victim-centered response to any who come forward to them. These announcements came during the middle of our conversation.

We recognized the need for a new sexual harassment reporting channel with greater independence that would give greater confidence to victims who might come forward. In a public statement worked out in our meeting, we committed to creating such a channel.

We struggled at length with how to handle the question of whether the Senate President bore some responsibility for his husband’s behavior. No one has actually alleged that the President knew of the abuse as it was going on, but perhaps he should have. There have been many red flags to suggest that his husband has a poor sense of boundaries. Yet, despite those flags, the President may have allowed his husband into out-of-the-office social contexts that included legislative staff and people with business before the senate, perhaps creating the possibility for abuse.

We agreed on the need for a credible independent investigation into the Senate President’s conduct. In a formal session after the meeting, we ordered that by unanimous vote. To more fully ensure the independence of the investigation, the Senate President has voluntarily taken a leave of absence from the presidency. We elected the Senate majority leader to the chair in his absence.

Whether Senator Rosenberg will return to the chair depends on the results of the formal investigation and on all other information that may be before the Senators at the time the investigation completes.

The prospect that we might have to choose a new leader is heartbreaking for us. Senator Rosenberg has transformed the Senate over the past few years. The civil, collaborative conversation that we were able to have yesterday was a great example of the model of shared leadership that he has been trying to develop. He has forced us all to grow in our jobs and to accept greater shared responsibility. We are profoundly grateful for that and want to assure that his positive legacy endures.

For now, the focus has to be on supporting the survivors, on making sure that others feel safe coming forward and on doing all we can to reduce the risk of more abuse.

Please note:

On this web thread, I will respond only to comments about the policy issues involved, not comments about the conduct of any individual. I encourage commenters to focus on the policy issues. The particulars about the conduct will come out in more detail in time through formal procedures.

Senate Committee on Ethics Statement, December 5, 2017

BOSTON- The following are comments issued from the Senate Committee on Ethics:

The Senate Committee on Ethics concluded its first meeting today. We unanimously agree that it is the intention of this Committee to release the report of the independent investigator, subject to the obligation in the Senate Order to maintain the confidential identity of any individual providing information to the investigator, unless the individual specifically consents.

The immediate task before us is the screening and the selection of the independent investigator, which we expect to complete within the next two weeks.
Moving forward, it is our intention to provide periodic updates to the public on relevant and important actions, including ones taken today.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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  1. I would still support the resignation of the Senate President from his position. Thank you for all the work the Senate has started to do in this.

  2. Thank you, as always, for your thought sharing of information and analysis. This is a heartbreaking moment all around.

  3. Do you believe the dynamics of the Senate President taking a temporary leave – but with the likelihood he will return to power – would pass muster in any other highly hierarchical organization? How can this not chill the investigation?

    1. At present these allegations are just that. As yet, there have been no findings of fact. Rosenberg has the burden of proof that he knew what Hefner was doing, but it is wrong to judge him prematurely. As for other allegations against prominent men, these need to be investigated, possibly tried, and only then will it be appropriate to sanction the perpetrators. We are a nation of laws in which the court of public opinion has no legal standing.

  4. Isn’t the Senate subject to the same Federal laws as the rest of us have in the workplace? I had to attend significant mandatory training for this in the 90s.

  5. This is all great, but why weren’t the accusations of women taken as seriously as those of men? As a friend to many women in MA politics, it’s frustrating and disheartening that no action was taken until it was revealed that men are victims as well.

    Yvonne Abraham has been reporting on sexual harassment in the State House since the end of October:

    WBUR has been covering it as well:

  6. Dear Senator,
    Thank you for giving us some insight into the contributions of Sen. Rosenberg vis a vis collaborative, respectful interaction.that he fostered. You have the unenviable task of continuing this legacy as you confront a personal and political challenge. I am so glad for your service to all of us and send you the support of me and my husband as you and your colleagues navigate this situation.

  7. Remembering the power of the many Presidents of the Senate, reported by the Boston Globe over the years, I do not see how a “temporary step down” allows an independent review equitable to all sides and testamony without retribution.

    The President must resign the position, if not the Senate.

  8. From your senate meeting notes it appears that the members are ready to make a serious committment to tackling this difficult and sensitive problem. I hope for positive follow up. Thank you as always, Janet

  9. Senato President Rosenberg shall be commended. This is very sad for all to see. He has been a tremendous leader.

    That being said, it has been reported in the past about his husband. Personal stuff gets in the way of a lot and we are all at risk at times.

    Lets hope we can get past it all and the Senate President who has been a great one can come back to lead.