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Wisconsin lawmakers eyeing changes to human resources office

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The office that investigates sexual harassment complaints against Wisconsin lawmakers would report its findings directly to legislative leaders, not to nonpartisan clerks of the state Senate and Assembly, under a move that a bipartisan legislative committee was asked to approve Tuesday.

Lawmakers worked on the change behind the scenes before the ballot was made public Tuesday. Three lawmakers have been accused of sexual harassment since 2017.

The changes are meant to standardize human resource functions and find efficiencies but won’t change the role that lawmakers have in overseeing “every aspect of the Legislature,” said Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Human resources “investigations have always been independent and will continue to be independent,” Beyer said.

The newly reformulated Legislative Human Resources Office would still be charged with investigating complaints related to harassment, discrimination, violence, retaliation and bullying. The findings of its investigations would be presented to “the appropriate legislative leader or supervisor,” according to the ballot sent to the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization for approval.

The director of the office would report directly to the legislative committee, rather to either Senate Clerk Jeff Renk or Assembly Clerk Patrick Fuller. They are employed by the Legislature and have worked under both Republican and Democratic control.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Organization is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats. It is co-chaired by Vos and Senate President Roger Roth, both Republicans.

Democratic leaders on the committee, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, also did not immediately return messages.

The ballot to approve the changes says that the human resources office must remain “strictly nonpartisan.”

The three reported cases of sexual harassment since 2017 have brought more attention and focus to how the Legislature handles such complaints.

Democratic Rep. Staush Gruszynski, of Green Bay, was asked to resign by party leaders in December after a legislative employee filed a substantiated complaint that he had harassed her. Gruszynski has refused to step down and is running for re-election. Republican Rep. Rob Brooks lost his leadership position in 2018, but won reelection, after he made sexual and racist remarks to three female legislators that he admitted were “stupid comments while under the influence of alcohol.” In 2017, Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick, of Milwaukee, was accused by two female colleagues of kissing them against their will. He refused to resign and lost a reelection bid in 2018.

In addition to investigating complaints, the human resources office would handle routine duties like processing payroll, coordinating worker’s compensation claims and answering questions related to family and medical leave requests.

The current director of the Legislature’s human resources office, Amanda Jorgenson, would also head the newly configured office, based on the ballot. Committee members had until Wednesday to vote remotely on approving the changes.

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