The news of another controversy surrounding a legislator’s alleged misconduct toward a subordinate in the Missouri Capitol comes as no surprise. While I don’t know Rep. Wiley Price, or the intern he denies having sex with, this type of scandal has become almost cliche.
Jefferson City has always been a boy’s club. Look back at just the last 15 years.
We’ve had former Speaker Rod Jetton and the “green balloons” scandal. We’ve had former Gov. Eric Greitens resigning amid allegations of sexually violent misconduct. Another former House speaker, John Diehl, was forced to resign when his inappropriate text messages to an intern became public. This year, Rep. Rick Roeber stands accused of child molestation by his own children. And on and on.
And these are just the scandals that we know about.
Marital indiscretions, though private affairs, run rampant and everybody turns a blind eye, as though it doesn’t say something when we expect honesty and integrity from somebody who would willfully lie to their own families.
In fact, it was about 11 years ago that I was on the receiving end of text messages from the married Missouri House minority leader, Paul LeVota, who was trying to invite me over to his apartment for drinks alone. That was the same conversation where he propositioned me, in a roundabout way, saying “As far as ‘the moves’ I’m in if you are.”
I was his intern at the time. He was my superior. Having been his intern for a couple months by that time, his intentions had been made apparent, discreetly. He knew the risks, all legislators do, and he was careful that any comments that might be overheard could be shrugged off as a misunderstanding. He was careful in his text messages, too, that he never stated anything explicitly.
In Jefferson City, plausible deniability is the name of the game. The folks with the power to do anything about it have always been happy to play along.
It wasn’t until some four years after the fact that I realized the error I had made in not speaking out, when another young intern came forward after having experienced similar advances from that same legislator. We became the face of yet another scandal in Jefferson City, members of a growing club of staffers and interns.
None of us came forward because it was fun. Or because we made a profit. Or because it propelled our careers. On the contrary, many of the women who came forward in recent years have left politics almost entirely. We came forward because we wanted to be catalysts for change. We wanted to protect the next girl. The next intern. We wanted the Capitol to be a safe place for all Missourians.
Did we fail?
To be fair, we have made some progress. We now have rules in the House that forbid romantic fraternization between lawmakers, staff and interns. We also have mandated reporting. And despite that, somehow the toxic culture remains.
In fact, in 2015 I testified about concerns that a proposed mandate to report would discourage victims from coming forward. My frustration continues to lie in the lack of accountability of the people who hold the power. The onus does not need to be on bystander staffers to report, or on interns to disclose. The pressure needs to be on the legislators themselves to not engage in this type of behavior at all.
Clearly, the systems that have been put in place are not effective. Price was censured, not for sex with an intern — something both Price and the intern deny ever occurred — but for threatening a staffer who upheld her responsibility and reported the allegations.
The allegations that he bragged about an alleged sexual encounter with his intern were never adequately addressed. All that was imposed against him was the hollow symbolism of being censured for alleged retaliatory actions against a mandated reporter.
Removing the prestige of holding a leadership position, and effectively easing his job duties by preventing him from serving on a committee, hardly seems adequate if you want to put a stop to the toxic culture that has been infecting the Missouri general assembly for decades.
It amazes me that people still come forward when they are victimized by or aware of harassment or abuse of power in the Capitol. God bless them for it. It takes a special kind of integrity and courage.
Time and time again Missouri legislators have shown that despite the hearings and committees and grandstanding, when it comes down to it, they don’t really care about the interns and staffers who have to bear the brunt of the toxic environment in that building. Who are the legislators afraid of offending by imposing stricter penalties? Who are they afraid of getting in trouble? Is it somehow better to keep a predator serving in office than to risk the public electing a new representative from the opposing party?
I truly hope that these brave interns and staffers continue to do the hard work of fighting for a better, safer environment in the Capitol, despite the fact that change has been slow to arrive.
I just wish it didn’t feel like they were fighting alone.