House Speaker J.D. Mesnard chose to remove Rep. Don Shooter from chairmanship and committee assignments following multiple confirmed sexual harassment allegations which led to his expulsion from the House on Thursday.
“A number of the allegations that were about crude comments, inappropriate gesturing, that sort of thing against women were substantiated,” Mesnard says. “That’s no small thing. There needs to be a message loud and clear that that’s no way to treat people especially as an elected official. We need to be held to the highest standard.”
There were discussions on what kind of consequence Shooter should face. First would be a reprimand, which Mesnard describes as a slap on the wrist. Above that is censure which is “a public criticism and shaming, really, of a legislator.” The last and final consequence is expulsion, which fully removes the individual from their chair. Mesnard initially put censure of Shooter on the table, but a vote on Thursday called for the representative to be expelled.
Senate President Steve Yarbough says the Senate has been “blessed to not have such serious issues.” He says they have taken a look at their own ethics policy and “reformed it with bipartisan effort.” Yarbough says he hasn’t heard any similar complaints that the House is dealing with because they have had a policy in place for the last 12 years.
“There’s not a lot in our rule book that says how we should conduct ourselves,” Mesnard says. “It’s sad that we have to put that out there. Clearly we must if people are misbehaving in that kind of way… I think it does help to rebuild confidence by the public of the legislature.”
There have been some requests of a statute of limitations for individuals who come forward with harassment claims. Mesnard says he has no plans to institute such a statute because he will always take the side of the victim.
Mesnard has also banned alcohol consumption on House property. Yarbough says he wouldn’t have a problem applying a prohibition, but he hopes it will not be necessary.
Ted Simons: THE NATIONAL TRANSPORATION SAFETY BOARD IS INVESTIGATING THE CRASH.
AN INVESTIGATION INTO SEXUAL HARASSMENT ALLEGATIONS AT THE STATE CAPITOL WAS RELEASED YESTERDAY AND FOUND CREDIBLE EVIDENCE THAT REPRESENTATIVE DON SHOOTER BEHAVED INAPPROPRIATELY TOWARD WOMEN. AS A RESULT, HOUSE SPEAKER J-D MESNARD REMOVED SHOOTER FROM HIS COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENTS AND CALLED FOR NEW INSTITUTIONAL CODES OF CONDUCT. JOINING US NOW IS SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE J.D. MESNARD, AND ALSO WITH US IS SENATE PRESIDENT STEVE YARBROUGH Good to have you both here. Thank you so much for joining us.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: Good to be with you.
Ted Simons: Speaker, let's talk about the report. You have seen it. You were the first one to see it. In announcing this report, let’s start with the committee assignments. Why did you take the action you did against representative shooter?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: The report found was that a number of allegations, not all, but a number of them were about crude comments, inappropriate gesturing, that sort of thing against women were substantiated. That is no small thing. There needs to be a message loud and clear that it's not appropriate behavior to treat people that way, especially as an elected official we should be held to the highest standards. As the speaker of house I have the power to remove a member from their chairmanship and from their committee assignments in this case I did both and I also put on the table something for the entire body to consider cause it’s not within my power. A full on censure of representative shooter.
Ted Simons: a censure is what, and how does that compare to expulsion for example?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: There’s a continuum of punishments that you have on the lesser degree, a slap on the wrist type of thing would be, a reprimand. Which I can simply do myself. A censure is a public criticism and shaming of a legislator and confronting the allegations in front and it's a resolution on the house floor that members vote on, becomes part of their record and part of the journal. If you go much further, you end up with expulsion, the political death sentence in the legislator.
Ted Simons: Kelly Townsend said she wants expulsion, she wants him to resign within 24 hours or go ahead and move on him.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: I fully respect that. There is gonna be a lot of opinions among legislators I’m already hearing that they think I acted too harshly or not harshly enough in terms of a punishment to Mr. Shooter. This is a time when unfortunately all of us have to play judge on one of our colleagues tomorrow. I suspect the emotions will run high and you’re gonna see a lot of different perspectives, and I’m gonna listen to those perspectives. At the end of the day we have to vote our conscious of what we think is a fair and appropriate punishment given the allegations and their credibility.
Ted Simons: Are there many who thought that you acted too harshly?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: I think most legislatures right that are still processing. It is a 80ish page report. I had the advantage of being able to read it a few days before. I suspect that they’re processing, reading and processing right now. I keep encouraging them to be thoughtful, read it through and make a decision. I don’t know that many have gotten to that point yet cause of all the other things we have going on I’ll find out tomorrow.
Ted Simons: Over on the senate side, folks paying attention to all this?
Sen. Steve Yarbrough: I'm sure everyone is paying attention. We have been blessed not to have such quite sure serious issues. Never the less as part and parcel there’s a whole process, we took a hard look at our policy and we reformed that policy with a bipartisan effort. I'm applauding the speaker for having to do heavy lifting.
Ted Simons: Behavioral code of conduct, I’m gonna ask to speak about that in a second. What do you think about that idea?
Sen. Steve Yarbrough: I think our policy is probably sufficient at this point. I don't know that we'll go there. We'll watch and see how it works for them.
Ted Simons: Code of conduct. How responsive will it be to what was found in the report?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: There is a lot in our house rules involving the ethics committee making sure people are not violating a conflict of interest, bribery, that sort of thing. But beyond the financial aspect of things you really don't have a lot about how we should conduct ourselves. And it’s sad, that we have to put that out there, but clearly, we must if folks are misbehaving in this sort of way. And like I said we should be held to the highest standard. So I think establishing that makes it clear moving forward. It certainly couldn't hurt. I also think it does help to rebuild confidence by the public of the legislature because it has certainly been damaged during this process.
Ted Simons: Do you think representative shooter should resign?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: That’s something I think he should consider doing. He was elected by his voters in District 13 and that’s why expelling is such a big deal cause you’re overriding their decision. And you have an election of course this year where they can make a decision and I assume they would take this into serious consideration if he’s running. That is certainly something he should consider doing because of the circumstances in front of him.
Ted Simons: Do you think he understands the magnitude of the report of how people take his actions and what he says?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: That's something you have to ask him. Certainly his statement -- he has apologized. It was sort of a mixed bag apology. He issued a statement yesterday about how this has been humbling, causing him to reflect inwardly. If that’s true I certainly hope so. I think that’s good. It doesn't remove what he did or the fact that we must act in response.
Ted Simons: And one more question on this, he has called earlier for a statute of limitation on harassment claims. What do you make of that idea?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: It wasn't just him. There were a lot of people sort of going through our policies saying, you know so how far back do you go? And for instance of Mr. Shooter, and this is one of the variables in the mix is a lot of the allegations from before he was in the house. It was when he was in the senate. Actually some of the gladius ones were when he was in the senate. So how does that all factor in? A statute of limitations and not just him a number of folks put it out there. Since this policy my feeling is, I’d rather know about things and not have someone say, whoa a statute of limitations is expired. So I’m always gonna air on the side of making sure that victims have a recourse.
Ted Simons: Are there other lawmakers right now being investigated for inappropriate behavior?
There are none, there certainly could be periodically you have an ethics compliant any number of things. Right now to my knowledge there are no ethic's complaints or any other investigations I can say that definably. What tomorrow brings or next week or next month, I'm hoping a code of conduct will help make them less frequent.
Ted Simons: This regarding a hostile work environment and the whole nine yards all this of course happening across the court yard there or at the house. However there was talk when this first came out that there was a good old boys club happening at the capitol on the capital grounds all over. First of all was that somewhat accurately and secondly has that been somewhat alleviated?
Sen. Steve Yarbrough: I am hard pressed to know whether it's accurate or not. I certainly saw some of the behaviors that we’ve talked about here today but, as a general rule, I don't have that sense. I think most of the folks that serve in the legislature are bright, committed people who want to do their best and who know how to conduct themselves properly. I think for the most part they do well as in any workplace.
Ted Simons: I was going to say Representative shooter was once senator shooter. So some of these actions occurred over there. But you’re saying overall you don't, and you haven't heard from members that they have a problem with this, lobbyists, other folks?
Sen. Steve Yarbrough: Ted, I have not heard a single soul. We have had policy in place for 12 years. Of course I have been a president a year plus and haven't heard that at all.
Ted Simons: Where do we go from here? 24 hour, tomorrow, we find out if representative shooter resigns. If not, a move to expel?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: There could be -- I have heard over the last day since I put on the table a censure, we are working on the draft of that, specific and explicit in what we are responding to in terms of punishment. You are going to have folks that don't want to do that. They think it's too much. You will have more folks on the other side that want to go for an expulsion. It will play out tomorrow, and I have no idea how it does.
Ted Simons: And last question I noticed you banned alcohol consumption on house grounds. Is that a factor here?
Rep. J.D. Mesnard: It certainly was a factor. I don't know every incident, but at the end of the day, alcohol can impair judgment. Most agencies don't allow alcohol during working hours on the premises. This seems consistent to that. The next speaker it can determine if he sees this as a problem. It may come across as mothering to some people, but rebuilding the public trust, I thought it was an important step to take.
Ted Simons: Are they going to the senate now to get a drink, is that what’s going on here?
Sen. Steve Yarbrough: I sure hope not. I wouldn't have trouble with such a prohibition, but I hope it isn't necessary.
Ted Simons: Thank you so much for being here.
J.D. Mesnard: (R) Representative, House Speaker
Steve Yarbough: (R) Senate President