Assaulted in 'safest place,' state employee works to change gov't response

The Minnesota State Government Mall
After being sexually assaulted, Safia Khan felt "completely lost." She said she was left in the dark about what happened to the state employee who assaulted her, and stuck in a maze of state bureaucracy. Now she works to improve a system that she says failed her.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Administration

Safia Khan had lined up behind colleagues for a group photo when she suddenly froze: someone had taken this moment to come up behind her and grope her over the back of her dress.

It was last February, and Khan was at a Breezy Point, Minn., bar and restaurant during a social hour following the first day of a state-sponsored conference. She was stunned when she realized the person behind her was Andrew Lieffort, a staffer at the Minnesota Department of Corrections whom she had met for the first time that day. He groped her twice more before she left the bar with her then fiance, according to court documents. After Khan left, she quickly received a series of texts.

"You are driving me crazy," he wrote. "I wish you hadn't left."

"Is [your fiance] here all week?"

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Khan, a survivor of childhood sexual assault, was at the Department of Corrections Victim Academy as an advocate to train Lieffort and others how to better respond to victims of trauma. Instead, she became a victim again.

"He assaulted me in what I deemed to be the safest place I could be," Khan said later in a victim impact statement. "He did this to me while I stood next to my fiance and other leaders and colleagues working to end domestic and sexual violence."

What followed was a maze of state bureaucracy that left Khan feeling "completely lost" and in the dark about what, if anything, happened to Lieffort in his job with the state. And it happened just weeks after state officials conducted a major review of how two dozen government agencies handle sexual harassment complaints. The investigation revealed a fractured, inconsistent process where there was no standard response from state agencies to sexual harassment complaints.

Two governors have since recommended creating a central office to help handle sexual harassment complaints and improve transparency, and two years in a row, the funding didn't make it into a final budget deal.

Now, a year later, Khan is in a position she never expected: a staffer within the Department of Corrections.

"I thought the perspective of somebody from a victim's world would be important to corrections," said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. It's already started to shift culture in the department, which had more harassment complaints than any other agency over the last decade.

"When I was asked to join the team, and after everything that had happened, I could have never imagined that I would be here and in this position," she said. "But this was an opportunity to be part of the change."

'No role and no right'

A few days after the assault, Khan went to local law enforcement in Breezy Point, who took her statement and requested surveillance footage from the bar, which supported Khan's account. Minnesota recently enacted a law that added grabbing someone's buttocks over their clothes to criminal sexual conduct, but it was still technically legal behavior at the time Khan was assaulted.

Lieffort was charged with two counts of stalking and one count of disorderly conduct, which was reduced in a plea deal to a conviction for disorderly conduct. But Khan said she felt "justice was served" based on her experience with law enforcement.

"They kept in regular contact with me, explained what was going on, gave me a sense of how long I would be waiting, kept me in the loop," Khan said. "I definitely felt heard and had a great experience, in a way. As good of an experience you can have in those circumstances."

The response from government was "completely opposite," she said. She agreed to meet with a state investigator about the incident, but she never heard from anyone again. State data privacy laws allow information about a case to be shared only with the person who is the subject of the data, or the person a complaint is against. As a result, alleged harassers typically knew much more about the status of the complaint than the alleged victims.

"We simply cannot give them any information about what's happening with the investigation, so it's very frustrating," Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, who has suggested changing state law to allow victims to get more information.

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell takes a tour with the media of Stillwater Correctional Facility in Bayport, Minn., Jan. 25, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Khan's anxiety grew: she didn't know if she would run into him at meetings as part of her job then as policy director and program manager for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

"It was a process where I certainly had almost no role and no right," she said. "I understand due process in the criminal side, and I also understand due process within internal investigations, and think it's absolutely appropriate. But due process doesn't mean that we treat victims in a way that isn't helpful to their healing."

Lieffort's personnel file — full of details of job transfers and letters of commendation over decades with the department — does not mention the incident or his status at the department. Several sources said he was nearing retirement and resigned instead of being fired or reprimanded.

In a statement to MPR News, Lieffort confirmed he no longer works in corrections. "All I can do is apologize. I feel very badly for putting a good person in a bad situation," he said. "I lost my job and a career that was genuinely fulfilling, but have worked to be a better person every day since then."

Meanwhile, Khan continued to suffer professionally because of the assault. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women sent a letter to the department last year noting that Khan had been removed without notice from victim advocate trainings she was scheduled to do. The department also stopped sharing information with the coalition, a frequent collaborator.

Retaliation against someone for reporting harassment is expressly prohibited in the state's sexual harassment policy.

"Clearly there was a different dynamic that came into play after the incident," said Liz Richards, executive director of the coalition who sent the letter. "It impacted our professional relationship."

Advocates: System falls short

Khan's experience isn't isolated. The 2018 review of state agency sexual harassment policies and procedures last year revealed a system where victims are routinely in the dark about their complaints and often felt they suffered professionally after reporting harassment.

Last year, Dayton's administration reviewed hundreds cases and state agency practices and recommended an independent office to handle sexual harassment complaints to create a process that was faster, and more consistent and transparent for victims. The Legislature included some language for the office in a 990-page budget bill in 2018, but it was ultimately vetoed by Dayton over other provisions that he opposed.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who took office in January, included $4.9 million in funding for the office in his first two-year budget proposal. But when the February economic forecast cut a $1.5 billion budget surplus to $1 billion, the funding for the office wasn't included in his revised budget.

Several other recommendations in last year's report have not materialized yet, including a reporting hotline the state planned to study, as well as a climate survey of state employees similar to reviews state employee unions and the Legislature have done recently. Frans said data from an employee survey could be released later this summer.

Frans said MMB has stepped up sexual harassment training for employees — roughly half of state workers hadn't had any training as of last year — but also training for senior managers to be better equipped to handle complaints of harassment.

"We are continuing to train people in different agencies to do this work," he said. "We need to increase the quality and enhance that reporting process, because that's what we base our decisions on."

But Richards said training isn't enough. Lieffort had gone through state sexual harassment training just weeks before the assault.

"The two things that people typically focus on is that we need to have a policy in place and we need to train," she said. "And while those are tools that need to be employed, if that's all that happens, we are going to continue to fall short."

She said she knows the Walz administration wants to improve the state system for handling harassment and assault, but she hasn't seen the administration make it a priority.

"If we're really going to have a one Minnesota approach, that we have diversity across government and we are reflective of communities across Minnesota, it means we also have an obligation to address safety issues," Richards said. "We know women, and women of color in particular, experience higher rates of victimization. If we start to diversify who is in our government, we have to also be addressing safety concerns."

Walz has grown the ranks of women working in government: 55 percent of commissioners, deputy and assistant commissioners are women, up from about 40 percent under the Dayton administration.

He's meeting this week with groups and victims of assault and harassment to discuss what his administration can do better. Studies show 80 percent of employees who report sexual harassment will leave their job within two years.

"I think I'm going to get a very candid assessment of areas of weakness. I want state government to be a model," Walz said. "I'm not going to accept that we can't be the role model for this. We want to show the way this should be. I want to be an employer of choice."

Walz said he will spend the next few months going over agency data and state procedures related to sexual harassment, and he's open to seeking an an outside audit of how agencies are handling complaints. He expects to have a full set of proposals to recommend next legislative session.

"It will be a central focus," Walz said. "You hear me talk about compromise, but I'm not OK compromising on safety. And I'm not OK compromising what we think can work."

'Hopeful' for changes

Earlier this year, Khan got a call she wasn't expecting. Schnell, who had been one of her chief contacts in law enforcement over the years, was appointed to lead the Department of Corrections under Walz. He wanted her to consider joining his team.

"I had tremendous respect for her and saw the policy work that she had been doing," Schnell said.

Schnell knew about the assault a year earlier and how the department handled her case. He'd worked with Khan for years, but he still didn't know if she would say yes. But Khan said the fact that she was even being offered a job signaled a change in attitude toward victims of harassment and assault. She accepted it and now leads government relations for the department.

"I felt hopeful to be given a seat at the table, she said. "I think it does change the dynamics in some ways."

Schell said he's trying to change the culture in corrections. He's establishing an independent investigative body that reports directly to him, and they're reviewing how they respond to complaints. He supports also creating a separate office to report complaints, but for now, he hopes this system will make employees feel safer.

"I understand, completely, the risk. It all boils down to trust, can I trust that there will be a certain level of independence," Schnell said. "In the long haul the more independence there can be, the higher the level of trust."

Khan said there's still work to do in state government, but she's seeing signs of movement. She doesn't want other victims of harassment to feel as lost as she did, whether they work for an agency or not.

"The response to me was as if I had done something wrong. It didn't feel like I was the victim when I was going through this whole process with the department, I was almost no one in that process," she said. "We're not going to stop these things from happening tomorrow, but I'm certain that we will take steps to respond better and differently to victims in the new administration."