BOISE — An Idaho lawmaker was accused of raping an intern; a Missouri lawmaker of abusing his children. In North Dakota and Oregon, a pair lawmakers faced claims of a pattern of sexual harassment.
All are now out of office — either resigning under pressure or getting expelled by colleagues within the past two months. Three other lawmakers accused this year remain in their jobs.
The flurry of sexual misconduct claims in state capitols comes three-and-a-half years after the #MeToo movement sparked a public reckoning for people in power accused of sexual wrongdoing and an overhaul of many state policies. The continued incidents highlight both that problems persist and that some legislatures are responding more assertively.
“These institutions don’t change overnight,” said Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Part of what the #MeToo movement did was shed a spotlight on the problem, but fixing that problem that has been so deep-seeded is going to take longer.”
Since 2017, at least 109 state lawmakers in 40 states have faced public allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment, according to an Associated Press tally. Of those, 43 have resigned or been expelled and 42 have faced other repercussions such as the loss of committee chair or party leadership positions.
Idaho Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger was the most recent to resign. The 38-year-old Republican stepped down Thursday after a legislative ethics committee recommended he be suspended without pay over allegations that he raped a 19-year-old intern in his apartment after the two had dinner at a Boise restaurant.
Von Ehlinger denied wrongdoing, insisted the sexual contact was consensual and wrote in his resignation letter that he was quitting because he could not effectively represent his constituents.
The decision came the day after the committee heard testimony, including from the young woman who brought the allegations. She was shielded from public view by a black screen and used the name Jane Doe during the proceedings. But a TV reporter attempted to film her as she left, and at least one lawmaker revealed her identify on social media. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder on Friday praised the woman for “the courage to come forward.”
“Anyone and everyone who comes here and works here, including yourselves, should feel safe here. It needs to be a respectful place to work,” Winder told colleagues.
In January 2020, an AP review found that states had enacted more than 75 laws and resolutions targeting sexual harassment, abuse and assault within government or the private sector over the previous two years. The review also found that nearly all legislative chambers required sexual harassment training for members, up significantly from about one-third of the chambers during a 2018 AP review.
The Idaho House and Senate required lawmakers to attend a “respectful workplace training” that started in 2018 and which von Ehlinger attended this year. But the House never formally adopted the respectful workplace policy, which von Ehlinger’s attorney noted during his hearing.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, a Democrat, said Friday that if the chamber would officially enact the policy, it would “make it clear that lawmakers should not be asking staffers out on dates.”
Von Ehlinger’s resignation came just a week after the Missouri House expelled Republican Rep. Rick Roeber after a bipartisan ethics committee investigation concluded there were credible allegations he had physically and sexually abused his children years ago.
Roeber attempted to resign shortly before the panel’s report was publicly released, citing his plans to move out of state to be closer to family. But the House refused to accept his resignation. House Ethics Committee Vice Chairman Richard Brown, a Democrat, said it wouldn’t be right to let him “escape without us giving full recognition to what has taken place.”
The House instead voted overwhelmingly to kick Roeber out of office, marking the first time since the Civil War era that a Missouri House member had been expelled.
“I don’t think it is appropriate for him to walk away on his own terms,” said Republican House Speaker Rob Vescovo.
In March, the North Dakota House expelled Republican Rep. Luke Simons for allegedly threatening and sexually harassing women at the Capitol in a pattern of behavior that lawmakers said stretched back to soon after Simons took office in 2017.
After the expulsion vote, legislative leaders vowed to again overhaul the policy crafted less than three years ago regarding workplace and sexual harassment at the Capitol. Some want to remove a requirement that could eventually make a victim’s identity public, which they said may have kept some women from coming forward.
Oregon state Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Democrat, resigned in March after a judge rejected his attempt to stop a planned expulsion vote following an investigation into claims that he had sexually harassed or created a hostile workplace for several women. He said he stepped down “so my colleagues may focus on serving Oregonians and so I can move forward with my life and focus on my health and family.”
Dittmar, of Rutgers University, said lawmakers who resign under pressure, rather than being expelled, could potentially find an easier path to a political comeback.
“If you’ve resigned, then you get to frame the narrative about why you left,” she said.
“If somebody is punished and expelled, then hopefully what that does is send a message to other members currently or future members that this institution will not tolerate this type of behavior.”