Attorney General Brad Schimel is supporting the position of state legislative leaders to keep records related to sexual harassment in the state Legislature private.
Schimel, in a wide-ranging interview with the Wisconsin State Journal this week, said releasing records of complaints and investigations could make sexual harassment or misconduct victims relive the harm done to them — a concern that outweighs taxpayers’ right to know whether public officials are engaging in harassing or even criminal behavior at work.
“When you get the leadership of both parties agreeing on something being the right thing to do, I think that speaks loudly because a lot of times they are just sniping at each other. And I think they hit the right balance here. You cannot disempower a victim. Then the system is just re-victimizing them,” Schimel said. “There are compelling interests on both sides but I think first — that the survivor who came forward and said something — they hold the trump card.”
But in 2016 at least, Schimel’s Department of Justice released records related to sexual harassment complaints filed in his department to The Associated Press.
Republican leaders in the Senate and the Assembly have said they will not release records or information related to complaints of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault, saying doing so would have a chilling effect on victims feeling comfortable coming forward with their experiences. Democratic leaders say they support that stand.
The position was taken after media outlets sought records of complaints and investigations after an avalanche of recent accusations of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault against powerful men in Hollywood, politics and media.
“We’re seeing many individuals come forward now to report that persons in power have abused or harassed them and I think it’s great that they are coming forward,” Schimel said. “They are finding they are having the courage to start saying something but what I think is even better about all this is that America as a society is not starting by rejecting them — they are starting by believing.”
When asked whether keeping private records of taxpayer-funded settlements to resolve sexual harassment complaints that can sometimes include non-disclosure agreements could prevent opportunities to encourage other victims to come forward, Schimel said victims benefit from non-disclosure agreements, too, though he acknowledged the accused are often the ones seeking them.
“We’re going to grow as a nation now that we’re shedding the light on more of this ... but there’s a benefit of the non-disclosure (agreement) for the survivor, too, because they get some accountability for the person committing the acts but they don’t become an unwilling poster child,” he said. “Every time they relive it, it’s another catharsis — it’s another tough moment. I don’t think you can take that control away from them.”
Schimel, who would represent the Legislature in a lawsuit over releasing records of sexual harassment, said he believes the records law is on the Legislature’s side.
“I do believe their position is on good legal grounds,” he said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he appreciates Schimel’s concern about victims, but believes it may be misplaced.
He said if anonymity is a concern, it should be possible to redact victim information.
“But the substance of the complaint and the response should be released,” he added. “The public has a right to know who is being accused of misconduct and whether the Legislature has responded appropriately. My guess is that it hasn’t, and that all of this talk about protecting victims is just a smokescreen for covering that up.”
Lawyers who represent workplace sexual harassment victims have made a similar argument.
Ian Henderson, of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said privacy is a paramount concern for victims, as is their right to make decisions about what information about their situation is made public.
“However, that must be balanced by institutional transparency in responding to and preventing sexual harassment as well as accountability for those individuals who engage in sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Henderson said. “Perpetrators can manipulate systems and often cultivate secrecy as a means to avoid detection.”
He added that one-size-fits-all approaches are “often ineffective as they fail to account for individual survivor needs.”
Chase Tarrier, public policy coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, said his organization encourages Schimel and legislative leaders to continue “examining both their internal and external policies for handling instances of misconduct to ensure that the process provides justice in a way that empowers victims to make these critical decisions about their lives.”