By now, citizens are familiar with the drill: Politician resigns to “spend more time with family,” a cryptic apology or plea for privacy ensues, and, only days or weeks later do journalists unearth the documents, images or private posts that tell the full story.
This is what happened with a sexual harassment case last year against state Sen. Cliff Hite, a Findlay Republican, who left office after legislative investigators found that he had engaged in inappropriate conversations and physical contact with a female state worker.
Sexual misconduct allegations against state Rep. Wes Goodman, a Cardington Republican, also emerged in a spotty fashion following his resignation after House leaders discovered he’d engaged in a sexual encounter in his state office.
No centralized place existed for journalists to go to determine what they’d done. Such complaints can be lodged or investigated in half a dozen places, including by an employer, a law enforcement agency or the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
Getting at the public records that detailed Hite’s and Goodman’s actions all but required members of the press to already know who did what when and to whom.
“There’s sort of a natural tension between the right to know and victims’ rights groups, when more often than not we’re on the same side,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. “There’s this natural paralysis around sexual assault that tends to make more information secret than should be secret.”
A 50-state review by The Associated Press found that the majority of state legislative chambers have no publicly available records of any sexual misconduct claims over the past decade. Those with no information to provide either said no complaints were made, no tally was kept or that they didn’t legally have to disclose the information.
In Ohio, certain records on the Hite and Goodman cases — an investigative file on Hite, and suggestive social media exchanges revealing inappropriate behavior by Goodman — were released in response to public records requests submitted by the AP and others.
Majority Senate Republicans released records on the Hite case that included his resignation letter and a dossier virtually identical to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, which conducted the Hite inquiry. No documentary details at all were produced on another case of “inappropriate behavior” that led to the resignation of Senate Democratic Chief of Staff Michael Premo around that same time, aside from some “talking points” prepared for the media spokesman.
After Hite resigned, the Ohio House released records showing three state representatives also had faced harassment complaints in recent years. Few details were provided.
Release of those records preceded news of Goodman’s activities, which legislative leaders later said they had learned about verbally but never documented. Those documents also reflected nothing about a sexting case made public just last month involving another Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Rick Perales, of the Dayton area. Perales says he briefed House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger on the texts in 2016.
No further records were provided from either chamber in response to AP requests on any sexual misconduct complaints or associated legal settlements over the past decade involving lawmakers.
Further, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office declined an AP request for a list of legal settlements paid by Ohio taxpayers in cases involving sexual harassment. The office said no such list or database is kept.
Neither the state treasurer nor the state auditor was able to produce an accounting of legal settlement payments by category, either.
“Lawyers by their nature are hounds for detail, they like things organized,” Hetzel said. “When you think about these personalities and their backgrounds, you know they’ve got files. The secrecy around all this makes it very, very hard to do journalism.”