BOISE — Following the adoption of a new policy, Idaho legislators attended a mandatory ethics and respectful workplace seminar on Wednesday to review codes of conduct.

For two hours amid a busy legislative session schedule, legislators gathered to review ethics regarding conflicts of interest as well as refreshed harassment and discrimination policies.

“For the most part, I think there’s nothing to worry about here,” said Speaker of the House Scott Bedke. “We are just trying to be mindful.”

In November, the Legislative Council, which oversees legislative matters between sessions, voted unanimously in favor of the adoption of a new respectful workplace policy developed by a task force led by Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, and Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee.

Under the new policy, “members, legislative employees and legislative partners have a right to an environment that is free from harassment and discrimination.” The policy also requires all legislative employees and others working in the Capitol to attend respectful workplace training at least once every two years.

Colleen Zahn, deputy attorney general, spoke to legislators, giving numerous examples of harassment — including sexual harassment — and discrimination and stressing the process in place for filing complaints.

The policy prohibits harassment and discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Discrimination against individuals who are transgender or part of the LGBTQ community — though not written in Idaho code — is prohibited on a federal level and therefore included.

There was concern with the “explosion” of the Me Too movement — a worldwide movement against sexual harassment of women — that the state would receive a lot of complaints, said Zahn. But the state received a “small number” of complaints from the Capitol last year, which were all resolved.

The new policy outlines a complaint process that provides avenues for filing complaints that initiate a full investigation. The respondent is notified that a complaint has been filed and final investigation reviewed by a Respectful Workplace Committee — which will have both male and female representation.

“If you feel you need to lodge a complaint, you have the process to do that,” said Zahn.

Concern of false complaints or complaints not made “in good faith” were brought up multiple times during the training. Individuals who make false or bad complaints are subject to violations, said Zahn.

Legislators also expressed concern over whether records of complaints — which will be kept in full — would be public record. According to Zahn, since respectful workplace investigations were personnel matters, they would not be subject to public record disclosure.

The training also outlined what constitutes verbal harassment — stereotyping comments, offensive slang and profanities.

Zahn was careful to point out that the policy applies to all members of the Legislature, legislative employees, legislative partners such as lobbyists, legislative pages, interns and volunteers. It applies to all business conducted in the Capitol as well as outside events — including travel time.

“You need to behave appropriately,” Zahn said. “When you’re in that situation, there isn’t a point when you’re off the clock and can behave inappropriately.”

Brian Kane, assistant chief deputy for the Attorney General’s Office, reviewed Idaho code and statute regarding conflicts of interest and misuse of campaign funds and using public position as a legislator for personal gain.

“One of the biggest enemies of a culture of ethics, is a culture of entitlement,” Kane said.

It’s the responsibility of legislators to disclose a conflict of interest, Kane said, which can excuse them from voting on that issue. Failing to disclose conflicts of interest violates ethics rules and can be taken to ethics committees.

According to Kane, in 2018 the House had 58 declarations of conflict, and the Senate had 49 declarations.

Other rules reviewed were the distribution of confidential information and using public money to make a profit.

“Bribery is illegal,” Kane said. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, but here we are.”

Buckner-Webb said she was pleased with both the ethics and respectful workplace presentations during the seminar. A new policy that is “clear and concise and has some flexibility” is what the Idaho Legislature needs, she said.

“Way back when I was in the House, when I first started it was clear that we needed some of that because in every environment, we can interrupt negative stuff if we have a policy,” she said. “I thought both did a fine job, nothing like examples to help you clarify.”

Near the end of the presentation one legislator brought up male colleagues refusing to interact with female lawmakers in fear of facing accusations of harassment. This attitude, Buckner-Webb said, is more hurtful than helpful.

“We did hear that after last year…” she said. “I work with folks who do that all the time, and what you do is you alienate people that can give you help, that can support not only the work that you’re doing as a legislature, but you also make it very difficult for them to do their jobs. I think if we’re adults and carry ourselves and behave, we don’t have to worry about that.”

Riley Bunch is the night reporter for the Idaho Press. Reach her at 208-465-8169 or follow @rbunchIPT on Twitter.

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