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New Missouri House rules counter sexual harassment of interns, staff

Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

Missouri House members will have to undergo training to prevent sexual harassment every year and are barred from engaging in romantic fraternization with staff and interns.

The House committee on administration and accounts voted 6-1 to adopt the policies, which take effect immediately.

Republican Mike Leara, R-Sunset Hills, chairs the committee, and says it was necessary to establish the new rules before the start of the 2016 legislative session.

"I believe this was a base that we had to have in place well before session began, so that everyone understood and we could begin the process of selecting our interns for this session in early January," Leara told reporters Thursday.

Democrat Michelle Kratky of St. Louis cast the lone "no" vote.  She says the new policy doesn't outline the punishment for those who violate it.

"I just think there needs to be some more tweaking done to it," Kratky said. "There's no accountability of what really happens to a person (who violates the policy) ... I did not feel that there were enough teeth in it for certain parts of the policy."

Leara said, though, that any needed changes or updates to the policies adopted Thursday can be added later.

"If anyone has proposed changes, please submit them to the committee in writing," he said before adjourning the meeting. "I do not know when we will have our next hearing; if something substantial arises from recommendations, we could have a hearing quickly, we will make that public, and we will make public any recommendations to be considered."

The committee also voted to expand the number of people required to report on violations of the new policy.  That provision was opposed by several people who testified at the hearing, including former House intern Taylor Hirth. She called the expansion of mandated reporters "an invasion on privacy."

"As an intern who experienced unwanted sexual attention from a legislator, I had no desire to talk to anybody who might take our private conversation to anybody else without my consent," Hirth said before the vote was taken. "Please, please, do not force victims of sexual harassment further into silence, or take away the only bit of control they have in this situation, by forcing somebody else to speak for the victim before they are ready."

But the committee voted 6-1 to expand mandatory reporters to include all elected House members and all House staffers.

Hirth worked as an intern for Paul LeVota, D-Independence, in 2010 when he was House minority floor leader. She came forward after he vehemently denied sexually harassing another former intern earlier this year while serving in the Missouri Senate. He resigned from the Senate in August, but still denies the allegations made against him.

In addition, former House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, resigned from office on the final day of the 2015 legislative session after admitting that he exchanged "sexually charged" text messages with a young woman who worked as his intern this year.

The committee did not vote on the proposal to hire outside legal counsel to investigate sexual harassment claims. Instead, that provision is to be voted on by the full House after the 2016 legislative session begins.

Audio from Thursday's hearing courtesy of Missourinet.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.