As the #MeToo movement spread to state capitols, AP statehouse reporters filed uniform FOIA requests with every legislature seeking information about past sexual misconduct cases and payouts to victims. The coordinated effort, overseen by State Government Team reporter David Lieb, produced some interesting numbers: roughly 70 complaints and nearly $3 million in sexual harassment settlements over the past decade. But the real story was the information that wasn’t released. Only half the legislatures reported receiving any complaints during the previous 10 years, and just eight said payments had been made to accusers. Was that it, or were legislatures presenting a picture that was likely to be incomplete?
At the same time reporters were filing their FOIAs and doing follow-up, Lieb was working with his statehouse colleagues to catalog every instance since the start of 2017 in which a state lawmaker was forced from office, disciplined or publicly accused over a sexual misconduct allegation. While it was a limited sample size, it allowed the AP to match the official responses from legislatures with the known facts for the most recent years. That allowed Lieb to report clearly and authoritatively that even states with documented cases of lawmaker sexual harassment were not releasing records about those allegations – and potentially others.
Take Kentucky. Three years ago, the Legislature paid $400,000 to settle sexual harassment lawsuits involving three lawmakers. Last year, the Senate minority whip was replaced after being accused of groping a man and the House speaker and three colleagues lost leadership posts after secretly signing a sexual harassment settlement.
And yet no records of these or any other sexual misconduct allegations against Kentucky lawmakers are disclosed publicly by the Legislature. Complying with the AP’s record request, it said, was an “unreasonable burden.” As a result, the number of formal complaints and potential payouts remain officially unknown.
It’s a similar story in New York, where a state assemblyman was sanctioned by a legislative ethics panel after he was accused of asking a female staffer for nude photos, and in Rhode Island, where a lawmaker resigned earlier this year after being charged with extorting a page for sex. In fact, a majority of states would not disclose records related to sexual misconduct among lawmakers. The most common response was that they had received no such complaints over the past decade, did not keep a record of any such complaints or were not legally bound to disclose the records.
For victims, that lack of transparency can send a message that sexual misconduct allegations may not be taken seriously, deterring people from coming forward with accusations in the future. In Texas, the 181-member Legislature claims to have no records of any sexual harassment complaints over the last decade. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis finds that troubling, if unsurprising: "Often the fear of coming forward and what the consequence of that will look like suppresses anyone from saying anything,” Davis told reporter John Mone in a video interview. The lack of public accounting also means voters will never know how much worse the problem might be and keeps the potential misdeeds of lawmakers in the shadows.
In some states, the FOIA request did surface fresh news: It revealed that four Hawaiian lawmakers have been the subject of sexual harassment or misconduct complaints since 2008. It found a new sexual harassment complaint against an Arizona lawmaker. And in New Hampshire, the released documents showed that a state representative who complained about harassment from a colleague was told that no action would be taken unless the lawmaker expressly stated his disinterest in a relationship. Still, names were redacted in all those cases.
Lieb worked with data editor Meghan Hoyer to organize and analyze the responses from our statehouse reporters in every state. The resulting spreadsheet was distributed to AP bureaus and customers weeks ahead of publication to allow for localizations. AP reporters in 19 states did just that, producing sidebars that in many cases landed on A1.
The story moved in advance under embargo. When it went live, it was competing on a news cycle that included Paul Ryan’s resignation, Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony, the FBI raid on Trump’s lawyer, the crisis in Syria and – late in the cycle – the X-rated report about the Missouri governor. Despite that, the story received wide interest, with 2,100 screen views on the APNews app and an additional 1,000 views for the state-by-state list of lawmakers who have been accused of sexual misconduct.
The mainbar and state sidebars received play on at least 20 front pages. As a bonus, the data set was popular enough to generate revenue: By promoting the statehouse misconduct spreadsheet, the AP sold seven new data subscriptions to a news company that operates in Georgia, Indiana, upstate New York and elsewhere.
For their 50-state accountability project on a topic that continues to rattle state capitols, Lieb and Hoyer win this week’s Best of the States award.