Michelle Obama's former chief of staff to conduct sexual harassment training for Maryland General Assembly

The Maryland General Assembly is bringing in the former chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama to conduct sexual harassment prevention training for 188 lawmakers and their staffs.

The move comes after the Maryland Women’s Caucus released a report last year that detailed accounts of sexual harassment in Annapolis.

The training with Buckley Sandler LLP partner Tina Tchen, at a cost of $45,000, will be conducted in small groups the week of Jan. 14. That’s the first full week of the 2019 legislative session.

Victoria Gruber, the director of the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, said her office reached out to Buckley Sandler because of the firm’s expertise in conducting such training.

Gruber said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch asked her to arrange for a more intensive training session than most workplaces receive. Because it will be in person and run for at least three hours, the planned training session also goes beyond what’s required by a new state law that mandates two hours of anti-sexual harassment training for all state employees.

“The presiding officers wanted to do more than just meet the legal requirements,” Gruber said. “They really wanted to do something to customize the training to the legislative workplace”

Gruber said the training will include “real-life examples and methods for how to address them,” including training for bystanders to intervene to stop potentially harassing behavior.

“There’s a general consensus about the need to change the culture,” Gruber said. “I think this is going to be a national model for how legislators can conduct training for how to foster a positive workplace culture. If you can create a culture where sexual harassment doesn’t happen, that should be the ultimate goal.”

Tchen heads Buckley Sandler’s Chicago office and “has handled complex civil litigation and enforcement matters in both state and federal courts in Illinois and across the country,” according to her biography. As a leader of the firm’s Workplace Cultural Compliance practice, she “guides companies in approaching cultural compliance issues with the same rigor and vigilance — and the same compliance-management systems and controls — that they devote to other critical risks.”

She previously served as an assistant to President Barack Obama; director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and as chief of staff to Michelle Obama.

Last year, the General Assembly unanimously passed — and Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law — the legislation requiring sexual harassment prevention training for all state employees. Baltimore County Delegate Shelly Hettleman was the lead sponsor of the bill, which mandates the training be completed within six months of an employee’s appointment. It requires additional training every two years thereafter.

Hettleman said she was encouraged to learn of next month’s training for legislators and their staffers.

“If there’s an opportunity to have in-depth discussion with colleagues and staff, I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s about creating a culture where sexual harassment isn’t tolerated and people have an idea for where to go for help.”

Hettleman said some people have “different understandings” of what constitutes sexual harassment and the training should be educational for those with varying views.

“I’m glad to hear we’re going above and beyond what’s required,” she said. “We’re making these laws, so I think we have to be role models.”

Hettleman’s law was among several new bills targeting harassment that the General Assembly passed last year. Starting in 2020, for example, companies with more than 50 employees will have to report to the state the number of sexual harassment complaints that they’ve settled and how often those charges were leveled against the same employee.

The General Assembly passed other measures directed at its own workplace, including one requiring harassment charges against legislators to be handled by an independent investigator, rather than fellow lawmakers.

Busch and Miller last year created a new sexual harassment commission chaired by Jeanne Hitchcock, who held two Cabinet positions in former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration. The panel reviewed state policies and solicited input from business leaders and policy experts and made recommendations.

The women’s caucus report detailed anonymous accounts of sexual harassment in Annapolis, troubling vignettes presented as state lawmakers grappled with how to prevent such misbehavior in the future.

The caucus compiled allegations of encounters between male state lawmakers or lobbyists and women working in the General Assembly as lawmakers, staff members or lobbyists. They included a lawmaker describing a colleague grabbing her breasts and sticking his tongue in her ear, a staffer who said a male lawmaker closed an office door and slid his hands up her skirt, and a lobbyist who said a lawmaker repeatedly asked her to get him a box of condoms so that he wouldn’t impregnate anyone during the session.

“The recent #MeToo movement has brought to light a culture in which sexual harassment is still pervasive, and its harm too often ignored,” Delegate Ariana Kelly, the caucus chairwoman, wrote in a letter introducing the report.

Last year’s session also was marred by accusations of harassment. A General Assembly ethics committee investigated harassment and assault allegations against Baltimore Delegate Curt Anderson, a Democrat.

Busch referred accusations against Anderson to the committee, citing a "pattern of conduct.” The committee said it couldn’t substantiate the most serious matter, an alleged sexual assault in 2004, but found Anderson behaved and joked inappropriately with seven women.

Anderson has denied the accusations, but the committee said he partially admitted to impropriety. He did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

The committee ordered Anderson, who won re-election in November, to take anti-harassment training, and Busch stripped him of his positions as deputy majority whip and chair of a judiciary subcommittee.

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