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AG agrees sex harassment complaints should be secret

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel says he agrees with legislative leaders’ stance that sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and their staff should be secret.

Republican and Democratic leaders in both the Senate and Assembly last week agreed that complaints will remain confidential out of respect for the victims and the accused’s privacy.

Schimel has long touted himself as a champion of Wisconsin’s open-records law. But he told The Associated Press during a year-end interview that legislative leaders have struck the right balance.

He said there’s a strong argument for releasing the records so the public can see them and hold government officials accountable. On the other hand, victims typically report incidents with great reluctance and expect confidentiality.

“We can’t break that confidentiality,” Schimel said. “These are adults who made a decision, often based on the understanding that what they report was going to be confidential.”

He said victims should decide whether to make their stories public.

Asked why the Legislature couldn’t release versions of the complaints with certain information blacked out, Schimel said documents altered in that way could still reveal the victim’s identity.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said complaints with parts blacked out would give the public a general sense of how these types of cases are being handled or mishandled. He disputed the notion that the parties involved could still be identified.

He added that the media typically protects sexual misconduct and sexual assault victims’ identities and he hasn’t seen anything suggesting that people who file complaints expect the documents to be “suppressed.”

“It is just as likely that they hope something will be done about it, even if that means the complaints become known,” Lueders said in an email. “We have an absolute right to know what complaints have been filed and whether they were properly investigated.”

Two women have accused Democratic state Rep. Josh Zepnick of getting drunk and trying to kiss them in 2011 and 2015. The women have requested anonymity and neither filed a formal complaint. Zepnick has said he doesn’t remember the incidents but hasn’t denied they took place.

The women’s accusations have prompted Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz to kick Zepnick off all the committees he serves on and call for his resignation. Zepnick has so far refused to step down.

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