The state Capitol aide who lost her job in 2011 after complaining about being sexually harassed by her boss said Thursday a Department of Justice attorney argued most people would have quit their jobs if the behavior she complained about was so bad.
Jana Harris received a $75,000 taxpayer-funded settlement after alleging harassment by former Sen. Spencer Coggs, a Milwaukee Democrat who is now the city’s treasurer.
Harris told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview Thursday that the attorney’s suggestion while challenging her harassment claims was dismissive and offensive.
“At that time I’m a single mother of four daughters. I have a mortgage. I’ve got two daughters in college and one coming out of high school, and I’m trying to maintain some sort of stability for my family on my own. I cannot afford to just pick up and leave a job — that’s a privilege,” Harris said.
“I was trying to put up with it,” she said. “I understood I was working in an office with all men. I was trying to take it on the chin, but it just got so ridiculous.”
Harris said Thursday that in defending Coggs before the state Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division in 2011, assistant Attorney General Richard Moriarty also questioned her motivation and sought to discredit her character and honesty.
A DOJ spokesman this week declined to comment on the specific case, but said that victims would be treated with dignity and respect by the DOJ under current Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Coggs did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday and Moriarty could not be reached Thursday. Former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who oversaw DOJ at the time, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Harris was fired in 2011 by Coggs after Democrats lost control of the majority in the Senate. In 2009, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against him in the Legislature.
The firing ended the seven-year career Harris spent as Coggs’ legislative aide. After losing her job, Harris filed a complaint with DWD, which led to the settlement.
According to findings by administrative law judge Deborah Little Cohn, who reviewed Harris’ complaint, Coggs told Harris that her breasts were distracting, to cover up in front of her male colleagues and to wear her hair down, among other things.
Harris worked in Coggs’ office with all men, and there she watched her co-workers use binoculars to watch women walking and jogging around Capitol Square, calling them “double-breasted warblers,” according to Cohn’s report. Harris also heard Coggs make jokes about her sex life and questioned whether she was “black enough,” according to the report.
When Harris asked not to be fired, Coggs told Harris, “You can’t create an adversarial situation and then come back and ask me for something,” according to Cohn’s report.
“I found her to be extremely credible,” Cohn said.
Cohn found probable cause that the Legislature permitted sexual harassment and that Harris was fired because of her skin color and gender.
Cohn also noted in her report that Coggs did not testify to challenge Harris’ testimony.
Details of Harris’ $75,000 settlement were disclosed by the Senate clerk’s office this week.
Harris said Thursday the legislative complaint process in place at the time failed her and was designed to protect lawmakers.
The Legislature’s human resource officials took Harris’ complaint and relayed her concerns to Coggs without her knowledge, she said, and tasked Coggs with coming up with a plan to improve the office environment on his own. Harris said the problems grew worse instead as she lost work assignments and was excluded from staff meetings.
“I felt like they kind of lured me in to trust them and give them every confidence of the situation which was very sensitive to me and they just betrayed that in the middle of that process without any warning and didn’t prepare me for what might be the outcome,” she said of the human resources officials. “And then when I expressed concerns about that, they didn’t do anything.”
Rob Marchant, who was Senate chief clerk at the time Harris first complained, said Thursday his office took Harris’ concerns “very seriously” and followed the counsel of DOJ to handle the matter. Marchant also backed up Harris during his testimony during the DWD complaint hearing, Harris said.
Joel Warnick, who was then the director of human resources, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Coggs issued a statement Monday denying he harassed Harris or anyone else in the three decades he has held public office. He said he fired Harris in 2011 only because the Democrats lost the majority after the 2010 general election and the position was eliminated because of the loss.
Harassment policy under scrutiny
The Legislature’s handling of sexual harassment allegations is under new scrutiny in the wake of dozens of women nationwide publicly accusing powerful men of harassment, sexual misconduct and assault.
New training and a revised employee manual have been in the works over the last year, according to human resources director Amanda Jorgenson.
Legislative leaders also have said they will not release records related to sexual harassment to the public, citing a “chilling effect” they fear will prevent victims from coming forward or cause them to distrust the process.
Harris said Thursday she appreciates the desire of victims to keep their experiences out of the public eye but said sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers should be made public and that victim information can be redacted from those records.
“I think if it’s against a lawmaker — yeah, it should be made public because he or she has an obligation to uphold the law,” Harris said, noting such seemingly insignificant allegations against lawmakers as speeding tickets are public. “I think the public should know.”