SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature overhauled its policies against sexual misconduct and harassment Monday, setting new standards for what constitutes harassment and adding outside oversight for investigations of lawmakers.
The policy changes, approved by a panel of leading lawmakers on the eve of a new Legislative session, are designed to make the Capitol work environment safer amid a nationwide debate over sexual misconduct.
The new policies were in response to dozens of public comments at a previous public meeting and by email asking for greater independence in investigations. One change now requires that outside legal counsel participate as lawmakers investigate harassment complaints against their colleagues.
The state Senate and House continue to have the final word on the disciplining of any lawmaker accused of harassment, if probable cause of a violation is found.
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“Outside counsel alone can say this goes further” in the investigation process, said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, one of eight lawmakers who drafted the new policy. “It’s still up to the Legislature to make the final decision.”
Female lobbyists and elected officials have said sexual harassment at the Capitol has gone unchecked under procedures last updated in 2008.
Lawmakers on Monday attended anti-harassment training for the first time since 2004, and the new harassment policy will require lengthier training sessions every two years.
Attorney and human resources consultant Edward Mitnick instructed lawmakers on how to avoid behavior that might be interpreted as harassment by a “reasonable person” — a common legal standard added to the New Mexico harassment policy.
He presented hypothetical situations about behavior running the gamut from sexual coercion to unwelcome compliments and hugs, answering thorny questions about when lawmakers or legislative staff should feel obligated to report harassing behavior.
Legislators were urged to create a culture of mutual respect by their own example.
“Mutual respect is not treating others as you want to be treated, mutual respect is treating others as they want to be treated,” he said.
The harassment policy now spells out in greater detail what behavior constitutes sexual harassment. Complaint procedures differ for complaints against state employees, lawmakers or others who work or visit in the Capitol — such as registered lobbyists.
Raul Burciaga, lead attorney to the Legislature, said visitors could be banned from the Capitol for harassing behavior under the new procedures.
Outside civil and criminal legal remedies remain available to victims. Legislative staff can take sexual harassment complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and New Mexico’s Human Rights Commission — precursors to court claims for damages.
Harassment as defined under the new policy extends to racially offensive words or phrases along with other demeaning jokes or comments, innuendoes, and unwelcome compliments of a personal or intimate nature. It does not have to be intentional to be considered harassment.
Democratic state Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque was ousted last month as majority whip and ended his campaign for lieutenant governor amid allegations that he harassed women at a previous job a decade ago. He has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Padilla was the only New Mexico state lawmaker over the last 10 years to face major repercussions in response to concerns of sexual misconduct, according to results of public records requests by The Associated Press.
In December, registered lobbyist Vanessa Alarid publicly accused former state Rep. Thomas Garcia of offering to vote for a bill in 2009 if she would have sex with him — allegations he denies. Garcia, a Democrat, left the Legislature in 2012, and no investigation of him is pending at the Legislature.