The state Assembly appears to be taking sexual harassment seriously.
Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, held mandatory harassment training for all Assembly staff this week, as a wave of scandals across the country brought down or embarrassed powerful men in government, entertainment and the media who allegedly or admittedly abused women.
Vos and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, pledged Tuesday to seek justice for any victims of sexual harassment at the statehouse, adding that serial harassers would likely be fired or removed from their seats.
That sounds good.
Yet public trust in state officials to do the right thing is being blunted by secrecy. The Assembly and Senate chief clerks — Patrick Fuller and Jeff Renk, respectively — have refused a State Journal request from earlier this month for records related to claims of sexual harassment from the last 10 years.
The clerks contend releasing information would have a chilling effect on victims coming forward. But under Wisconsin’s open records law, those concerns must be balanced against the public’s interest in knowing that complaints and investigations are being handled appropriately.
How many complaints have been filed in recent years? How many investigations have been launched and completed? How often was discipline handed out? And how many of the perpetrators were elected officials? The public deserves answers to those kinds of questions to be convinced state officials truly are taking the issue seriously with action, not just words.
So far, the chief clerks in the Assembly and Senate have not released any documents in response to this newspaper’s request.
Vos contends that completed investigations into sexual harassment should be hidden from public view out of respect for victims’ privacy. Hintz added that even records with names blacked out should be kept secret to maintain consistency in how complaints are handled.
But the open records law doesn’t allow blanket denial of all information related to harassment accusations — especially if those claims were deemed credible, or should have been, based on the evidence.
Some victims might want the records released, with or without their names redacted. And in many cases, the public’s interest in knowing that perpetrators are being rooted out could be more compelling than privacy concerns. Disclosure could even prompt more victims to come forward if they see that complaints are taken seriously.
A little transparency can go a long way toward convincing the public and victims that creeps are being held accountable — even if they are powerful people.