DES MOINES — Majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate did not make any leadership or staff changes during a closed-door meeting Friday, but they ordered an internal probe of sexual harassment allegations that resulted in a jury award of $2.2 million to a former employee who brought legal action.
“We had very candid conversations,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, who turned back a call Friday for him to step down in the wake of testimony presented at trial by former Senate GOP communications director Kirsten Anderson. She claimed sexual harassment and retaliation in what she called a “toxic” work environment.
Anderson, who worked in the Iowa Senate for five years, told jurors earlier this month that she was fired in 2013 about seven hours after she complained to her boss about the lewd and sexist behavior she experienced in her work environment. Her claims were backed up by others who also testified at trial.
Dix, who contended Anderson was fired for poor work performance, said Friday that issues he learned in the trial “that I was not aware of” prompted GOP leaders to order the Secretary of the Senate to investigate the allegations.
“If we learn that they are truthful, we will move swiftly to address them in the appropriate manner,” Dix told reporters.
Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, who said his call Friday for Dix’s resignation “was not received well,” left the meeting expressing concern that “it’s business as usual in the Iowa Senate.” But he indicated he was comfortable with the goals his party has set moving forward.
“I don’t think there’s really any significant changes that we’re going to see,” Bertrand told reporters after GOP senators met for more than two hours at the Capitol. “I believe that Sen. Dix did his diligence this last week, and there was enough ring-kissing to go around. There’s a reason why you have a meeting 10 days after the issue.”
The Sioux City Republican said he wants to see the Senate “work on these distractions,” and he expects the jury verdict in the Anderson lawsuit will hurt GOP candidates in the 2018 election campaign.
“At the end of the day, I made my peace, I’ve distanced myself from this thing, and our caucus made decisions,” Bertrand said. ““How do you make the changes that are needed with the current people in charge? If this was any other organization in the United States, you would act decisively and quickly to make changes. That way, you could put people in those roles that can make the changes that need to be made. So I was supportive but disappointed.”
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he was “disgusted” by the workplace testimony that emerged at trial, but he supports Dix and Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and has confidence they will make the necessary changes to correct any problems.
“I was disappointed in our staff that no one brought any of this type of information ever to me or we would have done something about it,” Zaun said.
Dix said there are still post-jury verdict proceedings under way, and senators would consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in deciding whether to appeal the award the state has been ordered to pay.
Dix said he thinks Republicans are a “very unified” caucus with a focus on improving Iowa’s economy and building on successes of the 2017 session next year. GOP senators also discussed a projected budget shortfall for the just-ended 2017 fiscal year, but Dix said no decision will be made on a special session until they have better estimates of the possible problem in September.
After Friday's GOP meeting, Senate Democratic Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, issued a statement expressing disappointment that Republicans had refused to make any changes in staff or leadership and refused to rule out an appeal of the jury’s decision.
“Capitol staff deserve better than this because they deserve a workplace free of harassment and retaliation,” Hogg said in his statement. “Taxpayers deserve better than this because they are being asked to pay for the $2.2 million verdict because of the inappropriate actions of Republican Senators and staff.
“It is time for Senate Republicans to listen and take responsibility for the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against Kirsten Anderson and other staff. This is unacceptable. The idea of a private, internal investigation is ludicrous after the court, the jury, and the public already know the facts and want action to fix the problem.”