At the General Assembly in Raleigh, former lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers and others describe a workplace culture that is antiquated, handsy and flirtatious – a dynamic some say is rooted in power.
Editor’s Note: This story contains explicit language that some readers may find inappropriate.
Revelations of sexual misconduct on the federal level in recent months have led to stories of harassment at statehouses in Boston, Denver, Sacramento and Tallahassee, among others. At the General Assembly in Raleigh, there are examples of inappropriate behavior – some sexual in nature, others that point to the dynamics of power and gender. It’s a pattern some describe as a culture of sexual harassment, though that characterization isn’t shared by everyone.
In recent weeks, WUNC conducted interviews with three dozen current and former lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers, interns and journalists about the work environment at the North Carolina General Assembly.
The women, and a few men, described incidents of unwanted touching, compliments about appearance, and a "good ol' boy" culture. Others define that culture as friendly and fraternity-like, with many late nights, and plenty of jokes that aren’t for the thin-skinned. Nearly everyone said the dynamic of power is rooted deeply in the workplace culture. And during these interviews two incidents stood out.
A Chair, An Indecent Exposure And A Swift Departure
The first incident happened ten years ago when Representative David Almond (R-Stanly) allegedly exposed himself to his legislative assistant – and then masturbated on an office chair.
The legislative assistant reportedly filed a complaint, and legislators dealt with the situation swiftly.
"The chair we put away. There was semen on the chair. We went to the individual and dealt with the situation," said House Representative Julia Howard (R-Forsyth), who was on the Legislative Ethics Committee at that time. "We put a fine line in the sand and addressed it. That’s the end of your story."
Another member of that panel corroborated to WUNC that Almond was promptly forced out after the incident.
Multiple news outlets reported Almond’s resignation at the time, amidst rumors of "inappropriate conduct," but the most graphic details have not been confirmed publicly until now.
According to Howard, Almond was pressured to resign. He stepped down within 24 hours. There was no legislative investigation, and no criminal charges were ever filed.
Today, Almond sells life insurance in Stanly County, the area he represented while in the House. When reached by phone at his office Monday, he denied the accusations.
"The issues that did exist between a complainant and I have long since been resolved privately, and on a friendly basis, and non-financially," Almond told WUNC. "That’s really about all I have to say about it."
Almond was asked why he resigned so quickly if he was innocent.
"I resigned of my own accord," he said. "I thought it was the best thing to do, and that's really all I have to say about this."
WUNC attempted to reach out to the legislative assistant who filed the complaint, but was unable to locate her.
One Young Female Lobbyist’s Uncomfortable First Week On The Job
Another notable incident took place in January 2003.
A then-26-year-old lobbyist named Marisol Jimenez entered a meeting with Representative Daniel McComas (R-New Hanover). It was her first week working at the General Assembly. According to Jimenez, McComas immediately pointed to a tattoo on the back of her neck that was exposed by a ponytail.
"He notices it, he remarks on it, and then he proceeds to take me by the ponytail and pull me around his office, from legislative staffer’s desk, to legislative staffer's desk saying… 'Can you believe what she has on her neck'?" she said.
Jimenez's boss at the time, Andrea Bazan, was also at that meeting and laughed it off in the moment. The incident lasted twenty to thirty seconds, Jimenez said. She also tried to downplay it.
"But he was for sure dragging me around his office by my ponytail," she said.
Bazan corroborated the incident in an interview with WUNC.
Jimenez is sharing her story publicly for the first time. After the encounter, she didn't pursue the issue further, adding that even if she had wanted to file a complaint, it wasn't clear to her where or how to report such an incident.
McComas served nine terms in the House and retired from the Legislature in 2012. He was then appointed by Democratic Governor Bev Perdue to be chairman of the North Carolina Ports Authority. Today, McComas owns a shipping business in Wilmington. In February, Governor Roy Cooper appointed him to the state Board of Transportation. He denies ever pulling Jimenez's hair, saying "that's very much out of character."
"That sounds to me like it would be something terrible. I don't recall it, and I don't remember the lady either," McComas said in a phone interview with WUNC. "If that happened, I think she should have called the police right then and there."
He added: "I certainly don't recall dragging her around by the ponytail."
Jimenez said she never returned to Representative McComas' office. She also said that many of the lawmakers she dealt with were always professional. The hair-pulling incident was the worst she experienced, though she explained a pattern of uncomfortable interactions.
"What I found was a group of men who were sort of unashamed in flexing their power with me, and crossing boundaries with me, and putting me into situations that were hostile and sometimes even threatening," Jimenez said.
A Culture Of Discomfort For Some Women At The Legislature
None of the other lawmakers, lobbyists, and staffers interviewed for this story described an incident within the last ten years that rises to the episodes involving Representatives Almond and McComas.
Several women spoke about their discomfort meeting privately in an office, or riding in an elevator alone, with certain male lawmakers. Others said they were not sure where to go to report an incident or file a complaint. Still, many said the overall climate has improved, even if only marginally, over time.
More than a dozen current and former lobbyists said they avoid going into closed door meetings with certain lawmakers. At least two firms that have a lobbying presence at the Legislature have an informal "buddy system," where women are not allowed to meet privately in lawmakers' offices. More than a dozen lobbyists discussed frequently bringing other female lobbyists to meetings with certain male legislators.
This dynamic, according to these sources, is not partisan. One current lobbyist said firmly that this is not a Democrat or Republican thing, but rather a gender and workplace dynamic.
"It's cultural. It doesn't feel predatory," explained one current lobbyist, who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution. "It feels like the people think they have a right to my body and my space. A lot of touching on my back and my shoulder. They think they have access to my body."
Not everyone who works in the building feels the culture is toxic.
"During the time I worked at the Legislature I felt like I was respected 100 percent of the time," said Becki Gray, a former staff member, who is now a lobbyist and vice president at the conservative John Locke Foundation. Gray has worked in state politics for nearly 20 years. She noted that the line between a nice remark and sexual harassment can be subjective and differs depending on the individual.
Some of that subjectivity falls along generational lines, according to many of the sources interviewed for this story. What many younger lobbyists find improper – nicknames, comments about the length of a skirt, or routine hugs – were more of an afterthought to older lobbyists with decades of experience.
For at least one current female legislator, the workplace culture teeters on aging chivalry and inappropriateness.
"It would behoove the General Assembly to do some training to understand that every woman doesn't need you to compliment [her]," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "It's one of those things that people need to understand better."
N.C. Legislature Faces No Current Sexual Harassment Complaints
New ethics laws, coupled with more female legislators, have also improved the climate, according a number of people interviewed for this story. Still, some indicate the old guard remains somewhat entrenched.
General Assembly Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble said the Legislature is not currently dealing with any sexual harassment complaints but would address them on a case-by-case basis if and when they occur.
Legislative leaders hired Coble in 2015 to oversee operations at the General Assembly.
"I have not had a sexual harassment claim reported to me since I have been here. Due to the number of incidents reported in the media recently, we are taking this issue very seriously as we wish to protect our employees and provide a healthy and safe work environment," Coble said in an email to WUNC.
Coble also told The Insider that the Legislature's Human Resources department is in the process of reviewing a training program that he would like to introduce in early 2018.
Currently, the Legislature has an Unlawful Workplace Harassment Policy, a seven-page document dating back to October 2006. Another procedure – The Ethical Principle and Guideline 9 – was established in March 2010. It's a two-page document.
Expert: N.C. One Of Many States Lacking Effective Sexual Harassment Reporting Procedures
City University of New York Law Professor Rick Rossein specializes in employment and sexual harassment law. He also helped develop the sexual harassment policies at the New York State Assembly. At WUNC's request, Rossein reviewed North Carolina's policies and described them as "difficult to read" and "ineffective."
"What jumped out to me is that it's rather short, not easy to read, and I would consider it inadequate in terms of a basic policy concerning what they're trying to do is create a respectful workplace particularly as it relates to harassment issues," Rossein said.
Rossein said North Carolina is one of many states that does not have appropriate reporting procedures. Four female state lawmakers, independent of Rossein, said there is no viable reporting structure in place. Each independently of one another stated that the Legislature needs to adopt a confidential reporting process, as well as procedures to track incidents of alleged sexual harassment.
"I would take it a step further," Rossein said, in response to those lawmakers. "I think it's important to have an independent reporting procedure, but I think it's even more important to have an independent neutral investigator to find the facts and make recommendations – in this case to the ethics committee – because my experience is legislatures are incapable of doing a thorough and non-bias job of investigating their own."
Coble, of the North Carolina Legislative Services Office, declined to respond to Rossein’s analysis.
Harassment at the Legislature in the last two decades has ranged from gross misconduct to widely accepted generational norms. As the nation grapples with each successive revelation, statehouses – along with newsrooms and movie sets – are among the workplaces navigating a difficult discussion and a new day in the American workplace.