Schimel backs shielding sexual harassment complaints from public view

Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Like legislative leaders, AG Brad Schimel says it’s important to shield sexual harassment complaints filed with his agency, saying making them public would discourage victims from coming forward.

Still, the agency released the names of two employees who turned in their resignations two years ago while facing sexual harassment allegations. All told, the agency has received six sexual harassment complaints since Schimel took office in 2015, DOJ said.

Schimel told WisPolitics.com victims of sexual harassment need to be confident when they go to human resources with allegations of harassment that it’s a “confidential conversation” to help ensure they will feel comfortable coming forward.

“To me, that wins in the balancing test,” Schimel told WisPolitics.com in one of several year-end media interviews this week. “There is that interest in overseeing the action of government, but we’ll never get a chance to oversee if those victims don’t come forward.”

Schimel’s comments come amid a renewed focus on sexual harassment following a series of allegations against high-profile men in the media and politics. The Legislature’s chief clerks over the past week released records to WisPolitics.com and other media outlets showing four sexual harassment complaints have been filed over the past 15 years. But the release did not include other details about the complaints, and leaders from both parties say they oppose releasing the documents.

Following the interview, the Department of Justice released an overview of sexual harassment complaints filed within the agency since Schimel took over almost three years ago.

In the six cases: two resulted in the employees accused of harassment resigning; one was referred to other authorities; two were found to be unsubstantiated; and one was unsubstantiated, but the employee who was accused was reassigned.

Both resignations were turned in during Schimel’s first year leading the agency:

*John Knappmiller resigned from his job as a supervisor in the agency’s consumer protection unit on advice from his legal counsel as he faced possible termination over the complaint lodged against him.

*And Brad Montgomery turned in his resignation letter in 2015 as a special agent with the agency with an effective date of Feb. 26, 2016.

The records DOJ released included a pre-disciplinary letter for Knappmiller, but not the complaint. The letter showed Knappmiller was accused of making repeated telephone calls to a female colleague, appearing uninvited at her home and positioning his groin “at an inappropriately close distance from her face while sitting in her office area,” among other things.

DOJ was still reviewing records related to the complaint against Montgomery to determine what it could release.

The case referred to another agency included Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Capt. Dan Bresina. According to local media, he was placed on administrative leave after it was found his behavior toward a Wisconsin DOJ employee was unwanted, but not unlawful.

Schimel said in the interview said it’s not secret in the agency when someone is demoted, removed from a supervisory position or terminated.

“The problem is you’re going to have the mystery did they get demoted because they were incompetent in their work or were they demoted because someone they supervised came forward and reported sexual harassment?” Schimel said.

Still, he said that approach also protects victims.

“If I disempower that victim by releasing what happened, then who’s going to come forward in the future?” he said.

Schimel said the agency took steps to address sexual harassment several months after he took office, long before the issue began generating national media attention following a string of allegations against men in the media and politics.

Those steps include:

*executive staff training in April 2015;
*mandatory sensitivity/anti-harassment training for all agency staff in August and September 2015;
*an update of the DOJ anti-harassment/discrimination policy in March 2016 that was sent to all employees;
*mandatory harassment assessment training for all DOJ supervisors and managers in 2016;
*a quarterly orientation to follow up with all new employees during that three-month period that includes a section on harassment and discrimination prevention.

He added he’s been encouraged amid the national discussion on sexual harassment that the attention has been on why the actions of the accused and not on questioning the behavior of those who have lodged the complaints.

“I’m hearing instead, they’re focusing on what’s wrong with the offender,” he said. “Why did they do what they did? Why did they feel entitled to engaged in that kind of behavior? I think that’s really encouraging.”

The women who have come forward to accuse GOP U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore have had their credibility questioned by backers of the former judge and others. But Schimel said he has not closely followed the story, saying he was not sure what to believe about the allegations.

“Moore is denying it, so the prosecutor in me says you’ve got to prove it,” Schimel said. “To the voters of Alabama, I suspect they’re paying a lot closer attention to those allegations them I am, and they’re going to be making that decision soon.”

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