Despite a House ethics investigation determining a member of her caucus violated the legislature’s sexual harassment policy, House Minority Leader Karen Camper says she won’t be commenting on the case.
The reason, Camper said, is because she is on the bipartisan House ethics subcommittee that reviewed complaints against Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, and determined that he acted against the legislature’s workplace harassment policy.
On Wednesday, after a letter was made public from the subcommittee confirming the violation, Camper declined to comment.
Again on Thursday, while taking part in a weekly Democratic news conference at the legislature, Camper said she would not be commenting, in that instance chalking her silence up to her position on the committee.
“I can’t comment,” she repeatedly said.
Camper also declined to answer broader questions about whether, as a woman in the legislature, she believes efforts to combat sexual harassment should be increased.
Staples is the fourth lawmaker in as many years to face allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. Three of those cases stemmed from accusations of sexual harassment while the lawmaker was in office.
At the news conference, Camper and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, initially declined to confirm a USA TODAY Network – Tennessee report that Staples had stepped down as assistant minority leader. Staples later verified the report through a statement.
But Stewart later told reporters that based on the ethics opinion, he didn’t think Staples has to resign his seat in the legislature.
“I do think he’s correct, though, to resign his leadership position in the caucus,” Stewart said after he and Camper were asked whether the caucus would call on Staples to step down altogether.
“Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything more formal that the caucus is empowered to do.”
Ethics chair says Democratic leader free to say whether caucus should act
But Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, who chairs the ethics committee and subcommittee, as well as the House rules committee, said Camper is “not prohibited” from speaking generally about the situation, as long as she doesn’t discuss particulars of the investigation or other parties involved.
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“If she wants to share her opinion on sexual harassment, or if she wants to share her thoughts as the leader of her caucus what she would or would not do in her caucus, separate from the rules of the House, that’s her purview and of course she’s allowed to comment or not comment,” Hill said.
According to the General Assembly’s workplace discrimination and harassment policy, signed by House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the first week of the session, “no information concerning a complaint will be released to anyone not directly involved in an investigation.”
While they aren’t members of the smaller subcommittee, two other House Ethics Committee members — House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville — have commented publicly on the situation.
On Thursday, Sexton reiterated his concern about whether Stewart reported the woman’s allegation immediately upon her contacting Stewart about what occurred.
“Do I think he followed the policy?” Sexton said. “No, I don’t think he did. Is it a violation? We’re not sure.”
Stewart has maintained that he read and followed the policy to quickly report the incident. It’s unclear how long Stewart waited before forwarding the woman’s complaints to the speaker’s office.
For his part, Lamberth said Casada’s office and the ethics subcommittee acted quickly upon receiving the information.
“It appears to me that the process worked well,” Lamberth said. “I do wish we would have known about the complaint a little quicker, but it was reported properly and it went through the proper procedures.”
Camper not only leader questioned over response to allegations against member
Camper isn’t the only legislative leader to face questions about her response to sexual misconduct allegations against a member this session.
Casada came under fire from activists earlier this year after appointing Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, to chair the education administration subcommittee despite allegations by three women that he sexually assaulted them while they were in high school in the 1980s.
The decision to promote Byrd amid the allegations was met by weekly protests at the Capitol from a small group of women affiliated with Enough Is Enough Tennessee, a political action committee seeking Byrd’s ouster.
Though Casada had initially praised Byrd’s work on the committee and insisted he should be considered innocent until proven guilty, the House speaker last month removed Byrd from his chairman position, explaining that some members believed the situation had become a distraction at the legislature.
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