The lobbyist, the legislator and the touch

Did lobbyist Gil Genn grope state Sen. Cheryl Kagan during karaoke night at an Annapolis Irish pub? We — and probably everybody else with even a nodding interest in Maryland politics — have watched the security camera footage showing their brief interaction more times than we’d care to admit. Our conclusion: What the video exposes about the true nature of the incident matters a lot less than what the general situation exposes about the failings of Maryland law and policy governing sexual harassment in Annapolis.

Particularly during legislative sessions, there’s a blurry line between what constitutes work and personal business. Karaoke night at Castlebay is not a General Assembly sponsored event, but it is at the same time a practically ritualistic assemblage of lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, journalists and others. Business talk can creep in and out of such situations, and sometimes what happens in them spills over into the next workday. Sometimes not. The people there may be interacting as friends or as co-workers or something in between.

As challenging as that ambiguity may be, there is a formal mechanism at least for complaints and investigations into alleged sexual harassment between legislators and staff members. Legislative leaders have sought to improve it in recent years, most recently by establishing some degree of reporting on the number and type of complaints investigated each year and their resolution. But the policies remain imperfect, and many of the ideas that have been generated this year by the Legislative Women’s Caucus, including better training and the establishment of more avenues for victims to file complaints, should be implemented promptly. A bill stemming from their work also calls for the creation of an independent investigator focused solely on harassment issues, a position that exists in a few other states. Maryland lawmakers should think through the powers and responsibilities of such a position carefully; it could be crucial in some cases and overkill in others.

But the Kagan-Genn situation highlights a big hole in current law and policy: Lobbyists aren’t covered. They are regulated by the state Ethics Commission, not by the General Assembly, and the commission has no mechanism for investigating harassment complaints and no expertise in that area of law. Yet the relationships and power dynamics between legislators, lobbyists and staff create an environment in which harassment and inappropriate behavior can and do take place. Lawmakers can have power over lobbyists by virtue of their ability to support or oppose legislation, and lobbyists, who are often influential in directing their clients’ campaign contributions, can in some circumstances have power over legislators. Legislative staff, as Women’s Caucus Chairwoman Del. Ariana Kelly pointed out in a hearing on the reform legislation, are often silent victims because they fear that a complaint could damage the relationships and hence effectiveness of the elected officials they serve.

The Women’s Caucus bill seeks to address the lobbyist gap, though figuring out how has posed some separation of power issues that lawmakers are working through. The Ethics Commission has indicated that implementing the bill would require significant resources for training and possibly hiring new staffers to investigate such complaints, but that fact alone suggests how badly needed it is.

The path to reform has gotten tangled in recent weeks. A report from the Women’s Caucus including a quote from an anonymous victim saying the State House was like frat house led to a backlash among some women legislators, who then got nearly all of their female colleagues to sign a letter defending the institution and the progress they have made there, which in turn led to another backlash from victims who felt disrespected. And the Kagan-Genn dispute is generating more attention to the question of what happened in a specific situation and the evolving nature of the individuals’ stories (particularly Mr. Genn’s) than to the broader pattern of conduct in Annapolis.

By most accounts, things are better there for female lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists than they used to be, though that may say more about how bad conditions were before than it does about how perfect they are now. Lawmakers need to act during this legislative session rather than wait for until a commission established by the Senate president and House speaker makes its report. The current General Assembly has the ability to influence the kind of environment that exists in Annapolis, and that should happen before potentially dozens of new legislators take office next year. As times have changed, standards have, too, and our laws and policies need to change with them.

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