© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Up To Date

Amid Scandal, Some Say Sexual Harassment 'Commonplace' In Missouri Statehouse

Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio

Last May, former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl resigned after journalists at the Kansas City Star obtained sexually charged text messages that Diehl had sent to a former intern.

Now, Sen. Paul LeVota of Independence has come under scrutiny after two former interns alleged that he propositioned them for sex and then retaliated when they refused.  

On Friday's Up to Date, host Steve Kraske was joined by former Statehouse interns Sarah Felts and Casey Millburg, former Rep. Sandra Reeves and Rep. Kevin Engler to talk about the rising issue of sexual harassment in the Missouri Statehouse.

"This is commonplace"

Casey Millburg served as a Statehouse intern in 2010, and experienced harassment when a staffer suggested she kiss him in return for lunch. Millburg said, at the time, she tried to keep from showing any reaction because she was afraid it would reflect poorly on her career.

"I remember thinking, 'I can't let anybody see how much this upset me,'" Millburg said. "Because I had to prove that I could hang in this building, that I belong in [the Statehouse]."

Millburg says she talked with other interns and staff members, and nearly all of them had harassment stories of their own to share. 

"This happens all the time, this is commonplace," Millburg said. "I remember talking with a few interns about it, and they said, 'Oh yeah, well, this one guy told me how good my butt looked the other day.'"

Sarah Felts also experienced harassment when she served as an intern in 2008. After attending a fundraiser, she went to a bar with other interns and some legislators. After a while, she found herself alone with a legislator who tried to touch her inappropriately.

"I went to my car and just let myself go there, just cried for a while," Felts said. "I was very worried that if I said anything I would be cutting off relationships that I needed to have a future in the [Statehouse]."

An issue decades in the making

While both Felts and Millburg experienced harassment recently, some say Jefferson City has a culture that has brewed wrongdoing for decades. Former Rep. Sandra Reeves served in the Missouri Legislature from 1979 to 1992, and experienced daily slurs and jeers. 

"I went to the Speaker and said, 'You've got to handle this, Mr. Speaker, this is ridiculous,'" Reeves said. "He took me in his arms and kissed me on the lips. At that point I thought, 'This is completely on me.'"

Reeves says that she believes legislators abuse their authority over interns to justify harassment. She also believes voting in more women legislators would change the culture of Jefferson City.

"If there was more of a critical mass of women serving in the Legislature, if we had a woman Speaker, if we had women chairing more committees, this would not be happening," Reeves said. 

A call to action

In light of the accusations against LeVota, Rep. Kevin Engler said the House Select Committee on Rules is planning on making two recommendations to the Legislature to curb future incidents. One would create a system where interns could talk with neutral third-parties to report harassment without fear of retaliation.

Engler also says there needs to be a code of conduct for electronic communication between legislators and their staff.

"If I have an intern that's sitting in a committee meeting and I'm in another one and I need to [send them a text] to say, 'You're up next and need to be here in five minutes,' that's fine," Engler said. "But to say, 'What are you doing after work?' or, 'What are you wearing today?' is inappropriate. It shouldn't be tolerated in Jefferson City."

The allegations against LeVota are now being reviewed by the Senate's ethics panel. Both Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill both gave statements Thursday saying that LeVota should "seriously consider" resigning from office.

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.