Updated: 9:50 a.m., April 27 | Posted: April 26, 1:08 p.m.
The new policy in the Minnesota House to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct will get an immediate test after a Republican legislator was accused of crossing the line with a woman who had reached out to the lawmaker for help.
The allegations against Rep. Rod Hamilton have been forwarded to the House human resources office, and a police investigation remains open. The allegations surfaced publicly on Thursday and involve unwelcome touching and kissing of a woman whom Hamilton hosted at the apartment he rents during legislative sessions.
Hamilton, a pork producer from Mountain Lake, denied wrongdoing but apologized for gestures he said were intended to show emotional support for a woman he had come to know through his legislative job.
Emily Schlecht, 23, went to St. Paul police last week after an encounter that she said made her feel violated. She said Thursday his denials of inappropriate behavior were "degrading and further victimizing."
Schlecht is an advocate for Support Within Reach, a nonprofit that assists sexual violence victims, and had come to regard Hamilton as a sympathetic ear in dealing with a past abuse case.
She said she first met Hamilton in an online webinar last fall. In March, they met in person. And just a couple of weeks ago, Schlecht came to see Hamilton at his state Capitol office.
She brought with her a case file relating to a rape she reported in 2015 that authorities decided against charging.
"He genuinely did care and I really have a lot of respect for him in regards to how he approached everything and how he was helping me and wanted to help me," Schlecht told MPR News, agreeing to have her name used in connection with her account of what happened two weeks ago.
Because of a fierce snowstorm, Hamilton urged her not to make the long drive home after their April 13 meeting and invited her to sleep at his nearby apartment. She said she trusted him and felt safe, so she agreed.
As they watched a movie, she said she sat in a recliner while he was on the couch.
"He was sitting there, told me to come over there, had the pillow, put it on his lap and asked me or told me to lay down," Schlecht said.
Schlecht said she felt uncomfortable as Hamilton stroked her arms and face and kissed her on the cheek. She said she later moved back to the recliner and the lawmaker fell asleep on the couch.
"At one point I fell asleep in the recliner," she said. "And then he came over and woke me up around 12:15 probably and asked me if I was going to sleep on the couch or I was going to sleep in the bed."
She said she reported the incident to authorities more than a week later after speaking with friends about what transpired and how the encounter made her feel powerless. She is not alleging any kind of penetration or contact with intimate parts of her body.
Hamilton issued a statement Thursday categorically denying that his interactions with Schlecht amounted to assault.
"I now understand that my actions, while well-intentioned may be viewed differently by a survivor of sexual assault, and that it may have caused additional pain and hardship," Hamilton said in the written statement. "For that I fully apologize."
Hamilton said his his intention was to "offer comfort and compassion to a person who was going through a difficult time." He alerted House officials to the complaint earlier in the week.
Law enforcement officials haven't brought charges but consider the case open.
Beyond the written statement, Hamilton refused to say more.
"I've already issued my statement and at the advice of counsel there will be no further comments," he said repeatedly when pressed by reporters for more information.
Hamilton told the Star Tribune, which first reported the incident, that he was providing emotional support to Schlecht and his actions weren't meant to be sexual.
Schlecht said she is upset Hamilton appears to be discrediting her account.
"I felt groomed. I felt manipulated. And I felt extremely betrayed," Schlecht said. "And after my first assault happened. I am very clear with people that I don't like to be touched. I don't like affection. It's something that I am very, very clear with people. And he knew that."
There have already been repercussions for Hamilton. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin suspended Hamilton as chairman of the House Agriculture Finance Committee. Peppin said Hamilton agreed that was appropriate.
"When there are still allegations out in the air it makes sense for him not to be chairing a powerful committee," Peppin, R-Rogers, said. "Let's see how it plays out and go from there."
Under the new House harassment policy — adopted on Wednesday afternoon — the human resources department can bring in an outside investigator to look into complaints. And allegations raised by people not associated with the Legislature are fair game for review.
"They have the full ability to be ability to look into complaints and make the determination on next steps," Peppin said.
The House policy contains no time frame for an investigation to begin or conclude. The Legislature's session ends in about three weeks. Only House members can impose punishment against their colleagues, up to removal from office.
The policy holds most details confidential and limits the distribution of the results to only a few top lawmakers. So unless Hamilton or someone else close to the case has more to say or there is a prosecution, the public will know very little about the extent and findings of the investigation.
Hamilton's southwestern Minnesota House seat is on the ballot in November with 133 others. He hasn't said whether he'll seek an eighth term.