Sex and the Legislature

We don't need secret files that may affect legislator votes

Aside from the titillation and embarrassment involved, are there any policy implications in the leaked memo about new General Assembly Speaker Kent Williams' uninvited creepiness toward state Rep. Susan Lynn?

Over the last decade the membership of the Legislature has changed. There are more churchgoers and fewer drunken louts. (Not that they are mutually exclusive—we are talking generalities here.) The lack of lobbyist money to fuel bacchanals, shutting down the lobbyist-funded "Kremlin" party room, more press attention to ethical rules—all these factors have made the Legislature more sober, literally and figuratively.

Legislators don't bring their girlfriends to receptions any more.

You no longer hear stories like the one about the House member back in the 1990s who got a staffer drunk and parked on a lonely road. While she was throwing up out the window, he ran the electric window up, trapping her under the chin. Then he pulled up her skirt and had sex with her. He's gone, as is the legislator whose colleagues exited a club one night to discover he had a naked intern spread-eagled on the hood of his Cadillac. These stories may have been embellished over the years; no charges were ever filed or investigations launched.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but the legislators who were known to misbehave were also reliable votes for the leadership. You hear stories over the years about embarrassing material supposedly on file somewhere. I've never believed most of them, but let's examine the current policy of keeping sexual harassment complaints secret and even forbidding mention that the complaints exist.

If you have been indiscreet, carried away by drink, or even wrongly accused in a "memo," how does that affect your behavior? When it comes time to vote and you know potentially embarrassing behavior on your part could become public, are you more or less likely to play ball?

I'm not suggesting that anyone is so crass as to blackmail a colleague for votes. I'm talking about the self-censorship and self-directed behavior of people who know they are vulnerable.

Williams has been accused of being inebriated and telling Lynn he'd give a week's pay to see her naked. (That's about $345, by the way.) On another occasion it is alleged that he hugged her from behind and suggested she have a good weekend. Williams voted with 49 Democrats to make himself Speaker and suddenly this old memo surfaces.

Are there other memos? Is there a file drawer somewhere in which member indiscretions are stored? If other people do things to anger their colleagues, will other memos see the light of day?

I do know that some of the members, over the years, have had their offices "swept" to discover if any bugs might be planted. And they weren't worried about the FBI either. Perhaps they were just being paranoid.

But when the official policy is secrecy it tends to foster paranoia.

Having been outed by a memo, perhaps Williams should step up and change the policy. Let it be known that all allegations of improper behavior will be investigated by a discreet subcommittee, something like the Board of Professional Responsibility that governs attorneys, and then quashed or released. If there is wrongdoing, it needs to be made public. If it is a spurious allegation, it needs to be quashed.

We don't need a system where the possibility exists of secret files that either cover up wrongdoing or are there to keep members in limbo about whether the hammer might fall on them should they get out of line.

Of course, it would be better if the members didn't do anything to generate any embarrassing memos. But with 132 members from all walks of life, from every part of the state, away from home, things will happen.

But there has to be a process to dispose of the allegations or to make them public. Secrecy always provides an opportunity for abuse. Williams seems to be the ideal candidate to throw open any files that exist and let a little sunshine in.