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Iowa Officials Fast-Track New Sexual Harassment Policies for State Agencies

janet phipps
Katarina Sostaric/IPR
Department of Administrative Services Director Janet Phipps talks to reporters at the Iowa Capitol Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018.

Iowa lawmakers approved new rules Thursday for handling sexual harassment complaints in state government a month after an investigation found a former state agency director harassed employees.

The emergency rules, which were fast-tracked without public input, clarified that the Department of Administrative Services will investigate harassment and discrimination complaints from state employees.

DAS Director Janet Phipps was asked why the agency didn’t follow the typical rulemaking procedure that includes a public comment period.

“Because it needs to happen now. We had ambiguity in our procedures and our rules, and that needs to happen now,” Phipps said. “Sexual harassment is an important issue. We needed to get those clarified and get some clarity out for people.”

She said the new policies went into effect Thursday, but a public hearing is scheduled for December.

They clarify that complaints can be made within the employee’s agency, to the Department of Administrative Services, or to the governor’s office.

The investigation into sexual harassment allegations against former Iowa Finance Authority Director Dave Jamison found the state’s policy for reporting harassment wasn’t clear.

Mark Weinhardt, the lawyer who conducted the investigation, wrote that Jamison’s accusers feared there was no way to follow the complaint process without going through him.

“Based on the current language in the handbook, that fear was not irrational,” Weinhardt wrote.

Phipps told the Administrative Rules Review Committee at a special meeting Thursday that she felt she needed to act immediately after reading Weinhardt’s report. The new policies also say that employees who refuse to cooperate with an investigation or retaliate against accusers may face discipline.

Matty Smith with the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault told the committee the process seemed rushed, and the new policies aren’t good enough.

“We have heard from far too many survivors and victims who have had experiences with ineffective processes,” Smith said. “It’s really, really important that we get this right.”

Several Democratic lawmakers pointed out what they saw as flaws in the new policies, but all 10 committee members voted to adopt the rules at the end of the meeting.

Democratic Sen. Pan Jochum of Dubuque said the policy should say that employees can request an external investigator.

“I’d be more comfortable if we did make sure that employees did know that’s truly an option they have,” Jochum said. “What we found is that sometimes there was fear of retaliation.”

Other Democrats said the policies need stricter language surrounding discipline for retaliation.

Republican Sen. Mark Chelgren of Ottumwa, the committee chair, said he wouldn’t have allowed this process if he didn’t think the changes were a step forward.

“While I don’t believe this is a perfect rule by any means, I do believe it is an improvement,” Chelgren said.

He added the policies aren’t as comprehensive as rules the Senate put in place after a nearly $2 million sexual harassment settlement. He said all agencies should keep trying to improve their harassment policies.

“This has been an unusual meeting to say the least,” Chelgren said before adjourning the meeting.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter