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2018 State Legislature: Lawmakers vote to expand harassment policy Monday

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By Andrew Oxford The New Mexican New Mexico lawmakers voted Monday to expand the state Capitol's harassment policy, updating a nearly 10-year-old code amid recent controversies over misconduct and discrimination in legislatures around the country.

The new policy calls for an outside lawyer to investigate allegations against lawmakers, bringing a measure of independent oversight to the Legislature's handling of misconduct. The new policy also lays out a more specific definition of harassment and requires training for lawmakers every two years.

Adopted in 2008, the previous policy totaled two pages (the new one is five) and appeared to apply only to legislative staff rather than lawmakers themselves. It also tasked legislative leaders and staff with investigating allegations, rather than an independent committee or lawyers.

Some legislators had argued its provisions slanted the process of reporting and investigating harassment against victims, discouraging them from stepping forward. But in recent months, amid national debate over harassment and chauvinism in media and politics, some women have broken their silence.

And the new policy, adopted on the eve of a 30-day legislative session, was another sign that a cultural shift has reached New Mexico. Under the new policy, if a person who is not a legislative employee is harassed by a legislator, they can report the incident to the director of the Legislative Council Service or the chief clerk of the state Senate or House of Representatives.

They will in turn report the complaint to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the lawmaker's chamber, who will consult with an outside attorney experienced in employment law and decide whether to investigate.

If any of the legislative leaders or the lawyer believes the complaint should be investigated, the complaint will be given to a group from the House or Senate ethics committee, which will have an outside lawyer investigate the matter.

The new process means "we have someone from the outside, not solely from the Legislature" investigate allegations, Rep. Jim Dines, a Republican from Albuquerque, told the Legislative Council on Monday. The committee, comprising senior lawmakers from the House and Senate, manages the operations of the Legislature and sets its internal policies. The council approved the new policy by a vote of 15-0 after a sexual harassment training for legislators from both chambers.

The policy takes effect immediately. Complaints will remain confidential and exempt from the state's open records law. Though the New Mexico Legislature has not seen a major sexual misconduct scandal in recent years, the national discussion of harassment has spurred debate over what has gone unsaid and unreported at the state Capitol.

Sen. Michael Padilla, a Democrat from Albuquerque, dropped out of the race for lieutenant governor and was ousted from his post as majority whip amid renewed controversy over years-old lawsuits claiming he created a sexually hostile work environment while working at the city of Albuquerque. Padilla has not been accused of misconduct in the Legislature.

In a sharply worded letter in November, Rep. Kelly Fajardo, a Republican from Los Lunas, said she had personally experienced harassment and had "heard stories of sickening quid pro quo propositions where legislators offered political support in exchange for sexual favors."

The following month, lobbyist Vanessa Alarid accused former state Rep. Thomas Garcia of offering her his vote on a controversial bill in exchange for sex. At the time,

Garcia was a legislator from Mora County. And Alarid said he forced a kiss on her as well as touched her breasts during an encounter at a Santa Fe hotel.

Garcia has called the allegations a complete fabrication. The new policy is also designed to be revisited every couple of years. Voters will decide later this year whether to create an independent ethics commission to handle allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.

Dines said Monday he would like to see the commission involved in cases of harassment, too, potentially bringing more independence to the process. To view the new policy, visit nmlegis.gov.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.