Trenton legislators will move a new harassment and discrimination policy for lawmakers and statehouse employees on Thursday that they say is not a response to any specific problems in Trenton.
A number of lawmakers, including State Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Boonton) and former Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian, have faced sexual harassment allegations that resulted in payouts exceeding $100,000. Assembly Speaker Coughlin said he was unaware of such allegations against other current members of the legislature and that such allegations weren’t the impetus behind the new policy.
“It became apparent back in January when I took over, that this was something that we needed to look at. We have finally, as a society, caught up with the notion that we ought to be paying attention and stopping harassment whenever and however we can. That was the reason,” Coughlin said. “It was just something we needed to do.”
While the passage of the new policy will aid future accusers and provide training programs for legislators and their statehouse and district staffs to prevent such incidents, it does not appear as though the policy will allow for the adjudication of allegations that predate the passing of the resolution on Thursday.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said he doubted the policy would be applied retroactively, as did Assembly Majority leader Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees), who said it would be difficult to make the policy function retroactively.
That means that incidents like those involving Bucco, Haytaian and an Office of Legislative Affairs staffer mentioned by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg are unlikely to see investigation under the new policy, which replaces a much shorter, near decade-old one that was implemented in 2009.
The new policy requires legislative leaders be notified of accusations against members of their respective chambers and mandates the drafting of a number of documents during the course of an investigation.
The final determination will be subject to the Open Public Records Act providing the victim does not request it be kept confidential, and it’s possible that some other investigatory documents be obtainable through OPRA as well, though it seemed unlikely that such documents would be made available during the course of an investigation.
“Well, certainly statistics should be available that don’t identify people,” Weinberg said. “I think that the bottom line in terms of transparency is that final letters of determination, that is the outcome of the investigation, should be OPRA-able providing the plaintiff agrees.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was accused of sexual harassment when he was Gloucester Freeholder Director, cautioned against the premature release of information about the accusations.
In Sweeney’s case, the accusation proved unsubstantiated and the woman who accused him was ordered to pay the now-Senate president $160,000 in legal fees.
“I was the victim of a false claim, and the headlines were like ‘Kennedy shot’ headlines, and when we won the lawsuit and actually won fees and everything else, I got cleared on this 12th-page in the back corner of an article that big,” Sweeney said, holding his fingers a small width apart. “So, the final determination, keeping things private or until it’s determined what is true or not is only fair because you can ruin a person’s career by a false allegation.”