State lawmakers crafting a ‘code of conduct,’ mulling hiring an attorney for workplace issues

By: - November 18, 2022 1:19 pm
Nebraska State Capitol Building

The Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

NEBRASKA CITY, Nebraska — A special legislative committee is crafting a first-ever “code of conduct” for Nebraska legislators in the wake of complaints about the handling of a workplace harassment case that led to the resignation of Sen. Mike Groene.

The group is also considering hiring an attorney with expertise in workplace issues.

That was the message Friday from State Sens. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln and Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, who sit on the Select Interim Ethics Committee. That six-senator group was formed by the Legislature’s Executive Board to review the body’s workplace policies in the wake of the Groene case.

Former State Sen. Mike Groene (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Groene, of North Platte, resigned quickly after it was revealed that he had taken photographs of a longtime female staffer without her permission. The staffer described the photos as “objectifying and demeaning” and focused on “provocative body parts.”

While Groene maintained that the photos were not inappropriate and that the complaints about him “trumped up,” an investigation by the Legislature concluded that they were “boorish, brainless and bizarre, especially for the workplace.”

Senators call for review

An attorney hired to investigate said the senator’s action constituted “unlawful discrimination or harassment,” though later, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office declined to prosecute, citing “insufficient evidence.”

Several state senators, led by Omaha lawmakers Megan Hunt and Machaela Cavanaugh, said the Groene case called for improvements in the way harassment complaints, by senators and staff, are handled.

The Legislature currently has no code of conduct for its members, Hilgers said, so devising one would better identify appropriate and inappropriate conduct. A policy on the use of social media, which is being crafted by the special committee, will also help, he said.

Currently, there are several ways staffers can report allegations of harassment but only one path to getting a complaint addressed — through elected officials on the Executive Board.

State Sen. Wendy DeBoer
State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

DeBoer said having an attorney who specializes in workplace issues handle complaints would take any politics out of the procedure.

Better training

She said she’s also seeking better training of legislators and staff on proper workplace conduct.

Both DeBoer and Hilgers, during a briefing Friday to fellow senators at a post-election legislative retreat at the Lied Lodge, emphasized that the six-member ethics committee had not yet voted on whether to recommend the hiring of an attorney or on a draft version of a code of conduct. That, they said, will be done before the end of the year and forwarded to the full Legislature for action.

At least one senator at the retreat, Dan Hughes of Venango, who heads the Exec Board, questioned whether a full-time attorney was necessary. The Groene case, he said, was the only serious workplace matter that arose recently.

DeBoer said that such an attorney could be hired on a part-time basis. Hilgers, who was recently elected Nebraska attorney general, said such an attorney could handle other issues confronting the Legislature.

Hilgers said it’s common for organizations the size of the Legislature to have a specialist or attorney who specializes in workplace issues.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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