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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34 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  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:
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/11/01/don-just-change-rules-change-culture/wiaRTedMh7uibt2xKEpVEM/story.html?event=event25

    WBUR has been covering it as well:
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/11/01/don-just-change-rules-change-culture/wiaRTedMh7uibt2xKEpVEM/story.html?event=event25

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. Thank you, Senator Brownsberger for your hard work and steadfast attention to this very sensitive and important issue.
    I appreciate the great flow of communication from your office.

  11. This is not the first incident involving Senate President Rosenburg and his husband. That has to be an important factor in any decision. I believe that Rosenberg should resign as President of the Senate. That is the only way that any investigation can be fair to the alleged victims.

  12. Based on reporting in the Boston Globe there has been sexual harassment at the statehouse. From everything I have read and heard sexual harassment training is as effective as eyewash. Men need to hear from victims — how their lives were affected. How did the harassment change their relationships with men, their health, their effectiveness on their job.

  13. Why were the Republican Senators not part of the entire discussion? What was discussed such that they could not be made aware not contribute to the matter?

  14. As you note “No one has actually alleged that the President knew of the abuse as it was going on”. Nor has anyone alleged the Pres. Rosenberg has done anything wrong. Nor have any of the accusers come out of the shadows and made themselves known.

    What has happened to the constitutional principles of innocent until proven guilty or he right to face your accuser — but Rosenberg is not accused of anything.

    I am more and more troubled about inflammatory accusations that may end up having no there there ruining careers of outstanding public servants.

  15. Senator Rosenberg should step down from the Senate Presidency permanently. See Kevin Cullen’s column in today’s Boston Globe, which list reasons which agree with my thoughts.

  16. I agree on the peculiarity of excluding Republican senators for a major portion of this discussion. Ideally all in the legislature would be working together toward best practices, and Democrats’ role should be about the objective best practices model. The more the legislature can work together for the good of Massachusetts citizens and residents, the better. Sexual abuse should not be a partisan issue.

  17. This reminds me of Barney Frank’s first partner — the one who put in classified ads touting his “hot lips” and drew customers to Barney’s DC townhouse. Because Barney came out so late in life, like Sen Rosenberg, he made these juvenile choices after he should have known better. Most of us make our stupidest mistakes when we’re still in our teens or early 20s. I feel sorry for Rosenberg, as I did for Barney Frank.

    Of course, Rosenberg should have known that Hefner was still taking advantage of Rosenberg’s position and should have stopped it.

  18. Thank you for this detailed update, Will. As a facilitator, I’m delighted to hear that you moved the chairs into a circle to level the playing field. I’m also very happy to learn about Sen. Rosenberg’s promotion of a shared leadership model; bravo to that. Thanks to all the senators for taking dedicated time to discuss this important issue.

  19. This is going to be long… I find this a horrible and serious chain of events, even as many additional facts or correction of information may occur. Full care and total support of the “survivors”* is critical, as well as privacy for those who desire. Yet, one can only also hope that a full and public vetting occurs and that anyone, especially publicly- elected officials, guilty of inappropriate actions (including ignoring or hiding the incidents) receive the full weight of law and/or legislative censor.

    Policy is complicated to develop, but I would presume the same basic philosophy of treating another human within the public government/legislative realm is consistent with employment/work place law, and federal or state criminal law. I am a bit stunned that a “policy” needs to be crafted to spell that out.

    That said, with little effort, policies to protect people who may have business in the legislative arena can be crafted with care and speed, using policies of other workplace environments. In this case, it seems easy to think that someone who “exerts power” or “has influence” over another person — whether it pertains to a contract, pending law, or most certainly, sexually –through a relationship with any sitting elected official, let alone the very highest level, is abusive. You say there is already policy for the Senate workplace itself; would seem any abusive behavior deemed inappropriate by a Senator or Rep. should be likewise deemed inappropriate if committed by a key relationship of that official when the power is tied to the official or the chamber. That second “circle” might begin with all immediate family members, or “close associates” for instance, and each official when taking office each term needs to inform his/her family of the specific rules/codes/policy. And aubmit in writing to an Ethics appointee outside of the Chamber (Secretary of State? Attorney General?) While the official may not know of the illicit behavior or acts, there must be state law already on the books about sexual harassment which can be applied to the “accused” party (court action, criminal indictment, punishment, etc)

    While it remains to be seen what these current circumstances will reveal, someone elected to represent any constituents, let alone have a leadership role in a house or chamber, should be “smart” enough about the world and fellow mankind, and should be held to a pretty high minimum level of common decency. Furthermore, if that person is aware of inappropriate activities, and choses to ignore them, or brush them under the rug, they are as guilty as the offending party in abusing the office.

    Finally, without an outside and independent counsel to investigate, having that official continue to hold office, or to operate in any official manner seems naive and inappropriate. A temporary “time out” may be appropriate for the very first week or so to confirm the facts. However, after it is obvious there is even the possibility of any substantive abuse by a family member, or close associate, I would think the chamber has some process in place to determine if that official can continue to sit. Boards of Directors, Ethics Commissions or Ombudsmen deal with this all the time — in academia or business, high-level leaders or executives are given a leave of absence, with or without pay, until the issue can be resolved. But they are removed from the physical site and process, to be sure.

    *Victims is being replaced by “Survivors” — check current workplace developments on this front.

  20. The Senate coming together around the table and addressing the sexual assaults
    is the first step in accountability.
    The second step you have taken is taking inventory which is often overlooked because “breaking news” and ” tabloids”
    daily appeal to our base nature.

    But the long third step is reformation
    the taking the victims and the future of our community into account.

  21. Thank you for your comment Senator.

    Can you please state your position as to whether you believe the findings of the independent investigator should be released to the public? Obviously anonymity is needed for the victims, but I would hope that the rest of the findings will be released in full, so that the voters can make an independent determination as to whether Rosenberg should permanently step down. There is too much that occurs in Mass politics that is behind closed doors, and this would go a long way in proving to the people that the new guard wants a more transparent government.

  22. HMMMM I seem to remember that on the news they said Roy Moore married a woman 13 years younger than himself it was proof he was a pedofile. Isn’t the Senate President much older than his Husband?????

  23. I applaud the balanced tone of your report, and of the meeting of senators during these emotionally-charged times.

    As a group, you teach us to look unflinchingly at unsavory or frightening occurrences, never forgetting that our emotions, very valuable as they are to produce empathy as well as anger, need to be held in check in order to produce in us constructive intentions.

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