Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Wednesday public employees who are victims of sexual harassment should be able to receive taxpayer-funded settlements — and those settlements should be public — but does not support notifying taxpayers of the settlements' existence.
Vos, R-Rochester, said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that the public and members of the media should be able to have access to settlement records but he does not want to proactively release the details of the agreements in an effort to help preserve victims' privacy.
"I would never support keeping those ultimate settlements secret. I don’t agree with that at all," Vos said. "I certainly think that maybe you guys now, in the press, will look every month at the settlements the (Equal Rights Division) has and more power to you. But I don’t think it should be incumbent upon us to promote an embarrassing situation."
Settlements reached through the Department of Workforce Development's Equal Rights Division's process to litigate complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination are public documents and may be obtained through requests made under the state's open records law.
In 2015, Senate leaders approved a $75,000 settlement to be paid to a former female staff member of former Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, who was fired after she complained Coggs sexually harassed her. An administrative law judge found probable cause to believe Coggs sexually harassed Harris and discriminated against her before the Legislature settled with Harris.
Vos said Wednesday he never knew about the settlement before the Wisconsin State Journal reported it on Dec. 5, "and I shouldn’t know. It doesn’t matter to me."
The state Legislature's handling of sexual harassment has been under fresh scrutiny following an October New York Times story on Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein's systematic harassment and assault of female actresses.
Since the report, more women have come forward with stories of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault involving powerful men in media and involving lawmakers in state Legislatures and Congress. The women making the accusations say they feel now more confident that their stories will be believed.
Vos said Wednesday that he feels the Wisconsin State Legislature's process for handling sexual harassment allegations is fair because victims can report harassment to any Legislative leader, each house's chief clerks and to the Legislature human resources office.