Lacking confidence in sex harassment probe

When the Senate voted to hire an outside counsel to investigate sexual assault and harassment allegations against then-Senate President Stan Rosenberg’s husband, part of the motivation was to give victims and witnesses the comfort of coming forward with an assurance of confidentiality.

Without such guarantees, many victims’ advocates said, it would be impossible to have a complete investigation because State House staffers would worry about their jobs amid fears of retaliation. The advocates worried that victims would either refuse to come forward or, if forced, give less-than-fulsome accounts of what they knew. While some legislative leaders scoffed at such concerns, it appears confidentiality is not guaranteed.

WGBH’s Mike Deehan reports that the lawyers from the firm Hogan Lovells, which was tapped to direct the probe, must submit names and get permission from members of the Senate Ethics Committee if they need to issue subpoenas. That could chill confidence in an independent investigation.

Deehan reports that Senate staffers were briefed on the process by the Senate counsel but were given fuzzy answers as to whether their confidentiality would be protected should they be subpoenaed and testify.

“That’s when a bunch of people were like ‘now that’s a little weird,” one Senate chief of staff told Deehan. “Now members of the committee will know” who is testifying. The chief of staff added that he and others grew “nervous about that,” when the staffers were not assured of confidentiality for themselves or subordinates.

The probe stems from a Boston Globe story last month that quoted a number of anonymous Beacon Hill insiders and lobbyists who accused Bryon Hefner, Rosenberg’s husband, of unwanted advances. Some said Hefner intimated he could influence Rosenberg on issues before the Senate, something Rosenberg has adamantly denied.

There are no indications Rosenberg or members of the Ethics Committee, many of whom are allies of the once- and maybe future president, are looking to direct the probe or silence witnesses. But the potential effects of disclosing witness names to Ethics Committee members could undercut the investigation, which is precisely what many feared.

Rightly or wrongly, there has always been a perception and skepticism about lawmakers policing their own. In addition to the Globe story about Hefner, the paper also ran a piece on other incidents of sexual harassment under the dome. Sen. Jamie Eldridge just introduced a bill to set up an independent commission to field and investigate complaints of sexual harassment at the State House.

“When you have a Senate counsel or House counsel that is appointed by the Senate president or the speaker, it’s just going to create a chilling effect that’s going to cause people not to complain,” Eldridge told State House News Service when he first pondered the bill. “That’s been one of the really frustrating and heartbreaking experiences over the past few weeks, is talking to people who have been harassed or assaulted but just felt uncomfortable to tell anyone in the Legislature. Their complaints didn’t happen, and that harassment went unaddressed or unpunished.”



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