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Women at Capitol worry about consequences for speaking up on sex harassment

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The Minnesota House sits nearly empty.
A group of women is discussing whether there's an avenue to share their stories anonymously and without it becoming political.
Evan Frost | MPR News File

Women with their own stories of possible harassment at Minnesota's Capitol are struggling with how to air mistreatment allegations without suffering career repercussions. 

Interviews with more than a dozen female lobbyists, staff members and lawmakers in the past week have exposed deep concerns about sexual harassment and whether there are adequate protections for women who do speak up. 

A group of women who are lobbyists has begun meeting to discuss whether there's an avenue to share their experiences anonymously and without it becoming political.

About a dozen women attended one session, a lobbyist in attendance told MPR News, and another meeting is planned for Friday. The Minnesota Government Relations Council, a trade organization for lobbyists, was planning Thursday to discuss its role in assuring a safe work environment.   

Working at the Capitol is about access and professional relationships. Some women worry about their standing suffering if they go public.  

According to the lobbyist involved in the talks, the women meeting in private are so nervous about retaliation they aren't even using offenders' names when speaking with each other for fear of jeopardizing their own careers if something would be traced back to them.   

These discussions come after several women have alleged sexual harassment and misconduct against Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.  

Since allegations against Schoen became public, there have been broad, bipartisan calls for him to resign. He denies harassing women and says he won't step down. Leading senators are considering an ethics probe into Schoen's alleged actions.   

House leaders hired an outside firm to investigate the harassment allegations against Cornish, who has denied the most serious allegations and said messages he sent women have been misconstrued. 

But the $275 per hour contract House officials have signed makes clear the investigation is solely about Cornish. It could take a formal change to allow the firm, NeuVest, to go down other paths. 

That concerns Bill O'Brien, a Twin Cities attorney who often represents women alleging sexual harassment. 

"An investigation that has true integrity is going to go where the facts lead," he said. "If in the interviews that an investigator conducts they uncover additional impropriety, additional complaints, they should have the green light."

Meanwhile, a Republican candidate for governor who used to hold a prominent House role said he had no knowledge of complaints about Cornish's behavior.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, was House majority leader when then-House Speaker Kurt Zellers confronted Cornish in response to "secondhand reports" of poor conduct toward women. Dean said he was not part of the meeting and received no information about it later on. 

Zellers, who is no longer in office, has called on Cornish to resign. Dean said Wednesday he is troubled by the nature of the recent allegations about harassing texts and comments, but is deferring to an investigation under way. He did not ask Cornish to leave the Legislature. 

"If the investigation confirms allegations of harassment it will be impossible for him to continue in his role," Dean said. 

  DFL Gov. Mark Dayton addressed the issue at a press conference Wednesday and said the state needs "to do a better job of standing up for those who are oppressed." He has ordered a review of harassment policies, training and investigations at state agencies.   

He acknowledged that sexual harassment inquiries aren't always swift, effective or consistent, and he said he wants that to change.