Sexual harassment in Ohio Statehouse: Leaders not 'doing enough' to stop it

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COLUMBUS - Thirty-five female lawmakers and staff members have a message about preventing sexual harassment in the Ohio Legislature: "We are not doing enough."

Former Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, resigned last month after he was accused of sexually harassing a female legislative employee over several weeks. He repeatedly asked the woman for sex despite her constant denials, according to a memo compiled by her employer. Hite characterized the misconduct as unwelcome hugs and inappropriate language.

After Hite's resignation, leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate and House said they would institute regular training on sexual harassment – how to spot it and prevent it.

But Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, and 34 other lawmakers and staff members say that's not enough.

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"If we want to end harassment, we must work to close gaps in gender equality, increase the number of women in the legislature and in leadership roles, and continue to convey that we have zero tolerance for harassment in our legislature," Tavares wrote in an open letter signed by others, including Cincinnati-area Reps. Brigid Kelly and Cathy Ingram. All of them were Democrats.

Women hold six of 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and 23 of 99 seats in the Ohio House. Women currently hold one-third of the 18 leadership positions. Only one woman, former Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, has led the House, and the state Senate has never had a female president.

Following Hite's resignation, The Enquirer requested records on other recent complaints of harassment. Since 2015, three lawmakers and one aide violated the Ohio House's code on harassment and discrimination, according to provided records. The legislators, one Republican and two Democrats, were admonished and the GOP legislative aide was fired. 

In Kentucky, House Speaker Jeff Hoover secretly settled a sexual harassment claim made by a woman on his legislative staff, according to a Louisville Courier Journal report. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called Hoover's alleged actions "reprehensible, indefensible and unacceptable." Bevin said Hoover should resign.

These reports come as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey are accused of sexual harassment and misconduct. An online movement encouraged people to share their stories about harassment and assault using the hashtag, #metoo.

"This behavior is not a joke. It is not playful banter. It is not flirting," Tavares wrote. "This behavior exploits an elected position of power to create a hostile and intimidating work environment for women whose jobs are often in the hands of the perpetrator."

Tavares said, in the letter, that she was working on a bill to address sexual harassment in the state legislature.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, is willing to speak with any lawmaker about how to address sexual harassment, a spokesman said.