Since last year, at least 40 lawmakers in 20 states have been publicly accused by more than 100 people of some form of sexual misconduct.
Instead, Anderson was fired seven hours later from her job with the Iowa Republican Senate Caucus.
After four years of litigation that ended in September, the state agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle her claim, leaving taxpayers footing the bill. Her case is among the first in a recent wave of high-profile sexual harassment cases that have roiled state legislatures around the nation, highlighting the moral and financial liability states faces as claims pile up.
Since last year, at least 40 lawmakers – nearly all men – in 20 states have been publicly accused by more than 100 people of some form of sexual misconduct or harassment, a USA TODAY NETWORK analysis found.
The total, which doesn’t include confidential or anonymous complaints or government staffers who have been accused of sexual misdeeds, reflects unprecedented levels of scrutiny on statehouses across the country.
Swift action has been taken against high-profile men, including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and others accused of sexual harassment. There have been varying degrees of punishment for lawmakers.
Two weeks ago, Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned from his leadership position amid growing pressure over a report that he settled a sexual harassment complaint made by a staff member.
Florida’s Senate president earlier this month ordered an investigation into allegations that Sen. Jack Latvala, who is running for governor, made inappropriate comments or touched six women. Latvala has denied the claims.
Earlier this year, Rep. Mark Lovell, a freshman Tennessee lawmaker, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. The resignation followed last year’s expulsion of former Rep. Jeremy Durham, who had inappropriate sexual contact with at least 22 women, according to an attorney general’s investigation.
The ways lawmakers have handled sexual harassment and assault allegations has left some experts looking for change.
“The consequence must fit the transgression,” said Jennifer A. Drobac, an Indiana University law professor and expert on sexual harassment cases. “You have to withdraw the privileges, kick them out of Congress or out of the statehouse. Take away the privileges of their employ and their health care benefits.”
Debbie Dougherty, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri who has written several reports on sexual harassment, said the latest wave of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men follows a slow but steady stream of similar accusations against officials at FOX News, Uber and the National Park Service.
“It’s like a stone rolling downhill. You see some and then you see some more and then you see a lot,” said Dougherty.
“The problem has been ignored and minimized for so, so many years that I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Behavior at statehouses, long dominated by male lawmakers, has been thrust into the national spotlight as employees come forward to spell out an entrenched culture of sexual harassment.
This year, both Democrats and Republicans are facing accusations of misdeeds at nearly two dozen state capitols. They include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington.
In Arizona, eight women have accused Rep. Don Shooter of making sexually charged comments, touching them inappropriately or making unwanted sexual advances.
In Illinois and California, hundreds of people — including legislators, lobbyists and legislative staffers — signed letters alleging widespread sexual harassment in state politics.
Some efforts already are underway to address the problem.
Illinois lawmakers appointed a former federal prosecutor to serve as a watchdog regarding sexual harassment at the Capitol.
Other states that have yet to see revelations of alleged sexual harassment by lawmakers have begun taking action. Several, including Wisconsin, North Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska, are working to change their sexual harassment policies.
Texas leaders have also called for a review of the legislature’s sexual harassment policies after reports of widespread harassment.
Genevieve Cato, who worked for a female legislator in Texas before joining an abortion rights advocacy group, said she struggled with whether to confront a male colleague who frequently gazed at her breasts while working in the Capitol.
“I have never experienced anything like that before in a professional capacity,” she said. “I was totally surprised and completely unprepared and it just kept happening. It happened so much that I started to feel vulnerable and exposed and like I wanted to cover myself up.”
Cato said she was concerned that reporting it could isolate her and hurt her future in politics, but the interactions began affecting her focus at work. She often made excuses to leave the office so she could call her dad and cry over the phone, she said.
In 2016, a friend shared with her The Burn Book of Bad Men, an online spreadsheet that features stories of harassment, discrimination and other problem behaviors by men in Texas politics.
Cato typed her story into the list, which today contains about 60 anecdotes.
“It felt like a place where I could finally find some justice and a place where I could say what had happened to me without having to be afraid of retaliation or it affecting my job or anything like that,” she said. “Carrying these secrets around just weighs you down.”
Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said the sudden national discussion has given victims and others a new sense of security.
“I think that the level of attention that is currently on the issue of sexual harassment really does point us to a watershed moment where more victims are feeling comfortable coming forward with reports.”
Ending the silence
Women make up less than one-quarter of all state lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That puts many female lobbyists, staffers, interns and others at the professional and political mercy of mainly male lawmakers, who historically hold leadership posts and can quietly brush aside allegations of sexual improprieties.
Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said he would “bet the farm” that sexual harassment is happening in most statehouses.
“This is a structural situation that’s the same in each state where you’ve got a lot of independent power controlled by men arbitrarily and they’ve got stuff they can give and some of them are willing to use it,” Mooney said.
Experts say women who are victims of sexual harassment and assault are often reticent to come forward for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of having their personal life scrutinized to being re-victimized.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women experience sexual harassment at work. The EEOC also found the vast majority of harassment goes unreported.
In legislatures, where staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists intermingle both inside and outside statehouses, reporting harassment is further complicated by the fact that it is often unclear to whom victims should turn.
But, experts say, the traditional hurdles of speaking out about sexual harassment has begun to change, in part due to fallout from scandals surrounding Weinstein and other prominent men accused of misconduct. Still, much needs to be done to address the issue, they say.
“When we see lawmakers grabbing and groping people or paying people off in secret to keep quiet about abuse that is not indicative of an evolved society,” said Drobac, the Indiana University professor. “We need to move beyond this Wild West, ‘I’m going to indulge all my passions’ society and start living to a higher level.”
Dougherty, the University of Missouri professor, said while it can be hard to break a culture of sexual harassment in institutions, it can be done through implementing better policies and training. There also needs to be a shift in behavior, she said.
“You have to change the way people interact with each other,” said Dougherty. “Trying to shift behavioral patterns so they match our desired values is really hard word. It’s complex and it takes a committed upper level management to make it happen.”
Contributing: Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register and Madlin Mekelburg of the El Paso Times. Follow Joel Ebert on Twitter: @joelebert29