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In response to #MeToo, Maryland legislature to change how it polices sexual harassment

In response to #MeToo, Maryland legislature to change how it polices sexual harassment
People gathered at the War Memorial Plaza in January to rally before walking in the second Women's March for social and political change. (Kim Hairston / The Baltimore Sun)

In response to the national #MeToo movement, the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved reforms to how it handles the reporting and investigating of sexual harassment allegations within the halls of the State House.

The bill that now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan calls for requiring a legislative ethics committee to tap an independent investigator when lawmakers are accused of harassment more than once. If passed, the measure would forbid legislators from using state funds to pay for any claims of proven harassment and would allow them to be expelled from the Assembly for findings of sexual impropriety.

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"This legislation is important for moving this state forward for starting to address a culture that has for too long existed not just in Annapolis, not just in the legislature, but across the United States," said Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Kagan became teary-eyed as she spoke Friday prior to a Senate vote on the bill. Earlier this year, she accused lobbyist and former state delegate Gil Genn of touching her inappropriately at an Annapolis bar, and said she decided to make the allegation public as a way to speak up for other women who have been victims of harassment but "are clearly more vulnerable than a senator whose votes could affect a lobbyist's clients."

Genn has denied Kagan's accusation. When both Genn and Kagan made public surveillance video of the incident, both said it vindicated their accounts.

"The sexual harassment issue has overlaid much of this session for me, as you can imagine," Kagan said. "A lot of us have had incidents over the years where we've overlooked unwanted touches, inappropriate comments. Most people don't get lucky enough to have video evidence in a, 'She said, he said,' incident."

The legislation also requires an independent investigator to look into allegations that lawmakers have retaliated against someone for making harassment complaints, or if a complainant requests an outside investigation.

Its passage comes after General Assembly leaders last year vowed to begin tracking complaints against legislators, and to generate an annual report of the number and type of allegations, and how they were resolved. In January, they established a commission to study successful examples of handling harassment and recommend ways the legislature could do so more effectively.

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