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Editorial: Lawmakers must be open about harassment allegations

Individually, our local state and national lawmakers have denounced sexual harassment. While they must do so given the scandals bringing down powerful men across the nation, we genuinely believe most of these fine people are sincere.

Collectively, however, they fail the test. The Minnesota House and Senate, the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate as well as the U.S. House and Senate have practices that prevent the public from knowing when any member of those bodies faces sexual harassment allegations. Each big, ugly secret remains secret unless someone leaks the story or a whistleblower speaks up.

A lack of transparency by those who create our laws isn't new, of course. Lawmakers bar the public from caucus meetings and key budget compromises. Strategic discussion necessitates closure, the argument goes. That's politics, people say.

But sexual harassment isn't politics — or it isn't any longer.

Speaker Kurt Daudt will require all Minnesota House members to undergo mandatory training on sexual harassment and other discrimination issues during the next legislative session. Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos held mandatory harassment training this month for Assembly staff. U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has called the wave of women coming forward a "watershed moment" that must change society that has covered for the transgressors far too long — particularly on Capitol Hill.

But raising awareness, talking about zero tolerance and posting #MeToo aren't enough. We need transparency so that when people who wield political power mistakenly equate that with sexual power they are held accountable.

Consider that the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act was supposed to subject lawmakers to the same harassment and discrimination laws that other American employers must follow. But the act also requires that settlements be kept secret. And legislative leaders in both Minnesota and Wisconsin have declined to disclose sexual harassment complaints involving senators or representatives.

One of their weak arguments is that releasing the names of the accused and accuser would make future victims hesitate to come forward. A similar argument says investigations into sexual harassment should be hidden from public view out of respect for victims' privacy.

Ridiculous. If investigators deem a claim is credible, then citizens need to know about it and due process should follow, and one individual's privacy doesn't outweigh the public's right to know about a public official. As for any "chilling effect" such disclosure might create, doing so actually can prompt more victims to come forward — as recent events have shown.

Local schools, cities and counties must disclose settlements and disciplinary action related to such misconduct. It's long past time that the same rules apply to the most powerful elected officials in our state and our land.

How can citizens trust that their elected officials will do the right thing when sexual allegations are secret? They can't.