Ethics committee passes amendment to protect Senate interns and fellows

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, met with members of the Senate Ethics Committee and unanimously passed an amendment to the chambers’s ethics guidelines Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (TheStatehouseFile.com Photo/Carolina Puga Mendoza)
Erica Irish
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INDIANAPOLIS (Statehouse File) — Members of the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously passed an amendment to its ethics guidelines Monday that adds new protections for interns and fellows hired by the state’s legislative branch.

The amendment says sexual relations between an intern and a senator, including relationships between consenting adults, constitutes unethical behavior and would be subject to an investigation by the ethics committee.

“A Senator violates this code of ethics if…the Senator knowingly or intentionally engages in sexual intercourse or other sexual conduct…with an individual who is participating in a paid or an unpaid internship with the Senate, the House of Representatives, or another agency within the legislative branch of Indiana state government,” the amendment states.

Committee members developed the amendment after the personnel subcommittee of the Legislative Council provided new recommendations for sexual harassment prevention policies Nov. 7. The personnel subcommittee is chaired by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and includes bipartisan membership from each chamber.

One particular recommendation by the subcommittee included a call to both chambers to draft amendments to the codes of ethics in the state House and Senate to permit any person, including members of the public, interns, staff and more, to bring allegations of sexual harassment to their respective ethics committees.

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, chairs the Senate Ethics Committee and said the amendment approved Monday serves as a vital step in protecting lawmakers and alleged victims alike. She added the amendment ensures lawmakers are held to higher standards in line with best practices followed by other states and the corporate world, all of which were considered by the personnel committee.

“What has frankly disturbed me about some things is the lack of confidentiality, and I think for someone to come forward they need to deserve it,” Brown said. “Also, because we are elected officials, we also want to make sure people aren’t using this as a political tool, and so both sides should be protected until a thorough investigation is done.”

The House Ethics Committee is preparing to propose an identical amendment, Brown said.

House Ethics Committee Vice-Chair Sue Errington, D-Muncie, confirmed her committee will discuss their version of the amendment Thursday during a public hearing. She said legislators in both chambers agreed to the change in an executive meeting with the Legislative Council last week.

“There’s such a power imbalance, even when [the relationship] is consensual,” Errington said. “These are young people. Their parents are expecting that we have the kind of standards that would protect [interns].”

While Errington said there was no indication Republican members are opposed to the change, members might propose unexpected amendments at the public hearing.

Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, chair of the House committee, called the extended rule a “no brainer” for both parties and said she believes members will approve the amendment. But she said it is “well within the rights” of any member to propose additional or unexpected amendments.

“It makes proper sense that [ethics rules for interns] should be spelled out,” Negele said.

The chairwoman is taking a hard stance in any situation involving an intern and lawmaker who want to pursue a consensual relationship, particularly as younger legislators start their careers at the Statehouse this session.

“My attitude as a mother is you can wait four months,” she said.

Although the Senate committee’s amendment passed 6-0, the change is not official until it is presented to the full Senate for a vote. Brown said the amended guidelines could make an appearance on the floor this week.

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