Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said he supports legislative leaders' decision not to release records related to complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct by lawmakers or staffers, and will defend that position if it is challenged in court.
"I think ultimately the best practice is you have to protect the privacy interest of victims," Schimel said in an interview. "There is unquestionably a very strong interest in being able to know what public officials are doing. They should be held to a higher standard than the average citizen … The problem is when those victims came forward, they came forward to human resources. They had an expectation that this is confidential."
But Schimel also said victims who share their stories publicly have helped make it easier for others to come forward.
"Ultimately we have to shed light on this, so I'm proud of those survivors who come forward and are willing to shed light on it," he said.
Legislative leaders in both parties have said they fear releasing even redacted reports could reveal a victim's identity and prevent other victims from filing official complaints.
Open government advocates have called for the information to be shared, citing the need to hold elected officials accountable for their behavior.
The response from victims' advocates has been mixed. Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault associate director Ian Henderson said, in response to the legislators' decision, a balance must be struck between ensuring victims' privacy and promoting transparency and accountability for public officials and employees who engage in sexual harassment. Henderson cautioned against a "one-size-fits-all approach."
"If we want to root out and address sexual harassment in the public-sector workplace, then we need the survivors of it to be willing to come forward and report it," Schimel said. "If they don’t report it, then that person’s going to continue to harass other people."
Two women who have accused state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, of drunkenly kissing them without their consent, did not pursue complaints against him. The Legislature paid $75,000 to a former aide to former Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, who complained of sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful termination, the Wisconsin State Journal reported this week. According to that report, four sexual harassment complaints have been filed in the Legislature within the last decade.
Schimel said society's response to women who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct has shifted dramatically since decades' worth of allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein were reported in October.
He said the Department of Justice has trained law enforcement "for some time" to "start by believing" victims rather than meeting them first with questions about what they might have done to provoke harassing or abusive behavior.
"America in general is asking, 'what’s wrong with that guy?' Not 'what’s wrong with her, and in some cases, him?'" Schimel said. "I'm encouraged by that. I think we could see a real change, that maybe more victims will come forward. It’s the only way we’re going to stop it is if they stand up."