State Politics

High school page says 2 Idaho lawmakers, lobbyist harassed her last year

The Idaho Statehouse in Boise.
The Idaho Statehouse in Boise. Idaho Statesman file

New documents and interviews confirm a teenage House page reported harassment by two Treasure Valley lawmakers and a lobbyist during the 2017 Idaho legislative session, prompting an investigation.

Documents describe her complaints: the lobbyist saying he’d been watching the page, unwanted touching from a lawmaker, flirtatious behavior and other undesired attention such as comments on her appearance.

The page, then 18, recently told the Statesman that none of the behavior was physical, outside of a representative’s lingering touch on the arm.

The page’s complaints reached legislative leadership. After an investigation, the page was moved to a different set of committees. The lawmakers involved were reprimanded and returned to work. The Statesman could not confirm what, if any, action was taken regarding the lobbyist, nor how thoroughly the claims against him were investigated.

The page has since graduated from a Treasure Valley high school. The Statesman in most cases does not identify victims of sexual harassment, and agreed to withhold the page’s name from this report. Her identity was confirmed through committee records and interviews with lawmakers and the House sergeant-at-arms.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, in response to a Statesman records request, released a handwritten complaint from the page and a typed complaint from another legislative staff member. Both complaints date to early February 2017. The typed complaint contains details of the complaints about all three men; part of it pertaining to Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, was released and was the subject of news reports in December.

Former Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell.

The teenager was a page in two House committees. Former Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell, was a member of both committees and is named as the other lawmaker the page said harassed her.

The typed complaint accuses Hixon of telling the page “jokes” like “Why do you sit right behind me? I know you’re there.” Its author wrote: “He has also been ‘playing games’ with [the page] that interrupt her work duties, such as trying to keep his nameplate from her when she comes around to retrieve it.” The complaint’s author suggested Hixon had made “strange comments” to her as well.

The page told the Statesman that the inappropriate comments “happened the first few times and I didn’t think much of it, but it gradually kept happening as session went on. … I think he was aware of what he was doing.”

Her claims appear to have nothing to do with more recent events: Hixon, 36, died by suicide Jan. 9 after two DUI arrests and amid a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. After his death, Hixon’s ex-wife claimed the criminal investigation involved the abuse of a child.

Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian.

The complaint against Holtzclaw was similar. It describes Holtzclaw asking one person — now confirmed to be the page — about how she uses Snapchat, and making “mildly flirty” comments to another person such as “Hello, have we met?” Regarding the latter, the document’s author wrote, “I have shown him that I will not tolerate it.”

Holtzclaw earlier told the Statesman he was unaware that any comments he made were inappropriate, and he was not attempting to harass or offend anyone.

“It was a huge misunderstanding and at no one time was it my intent to make anyone think I was anything but a gentleman,” Holtzclaw said. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I’m sorry for my conversation to be misconstrued.”

0118 BI Colby Cameron
Lobbyist Colby Cameron.

The handwritten complaint deals solely with Colby Cameron, a principal with Sullivan and Reberger in Boise with a background in political and public-sector jobs. According to the Sullivan and Reberger website, Cameron “represents client affairs to the Idaho Legislature and other government entities in the retail, environmental, education, transportation, energy and health care sectors.”

In the complaint, the page says Cameron approached her after a committee meeting, asked her name and where she was from. The complaint claims Cameron then said, “We were watching you on the floor, and we said, ‘Look at that tall skinny girl with the dark brown hair.’ ” Cameron then remarked on the page’s height, she wrote.

“I remember being really creeped out because I’m such an insignificant person,” the page told the Statesman. “I found it weird that they wouldn’t be listening to the representatives and would be watching me.”

In a written statement Tuesday evening, Cameron said he did introduce himself to a House page.

“I asked her what her name was and where she was from,” he wrote. “I told her that I was talking to one of the House secretaries in passing, and they asked if I had met the thin, tall, dark-haired page. I said ‘it is nice to meet you’ and I exited the conversation.

“Later in the 2017 Session, I was asked by the Speaker’s office if I had had any conversations with any of the pages on the House side,” Cameron wrote. “I confirmed the (said) conversation. That was the last I heard of it until getting a call from the Statesman this evening. I recognize that my attempt to be friendly and welcoming was not taken that way, and for that I apologize.”

The AG’s Office had withheld the complaints against Hixon and Cameron in response to a similar records request in December. Its denial cited public records exemptions related to an ongoing law enforcement investigation, depriving someone of their right to a fair trial, and personal privacy. The agency at the time was leading the broader criminal investigation into Hixon. On Wednesday, AG’s spokesman Scott Graf said investigators weren’t sure at the time if any of the complaint about Cameron also involved Hixon.

The page said the issue in the Statehouse was her first experience with harassment. “It was my first professional job and I heard about it, but I thought they wouldn’t bother me” because of her age, she said. “It did shock me.”

The girl didn’t know of any other pages who had experienced similar problems. “In any situation I think it’s really important, obviously for females (to speak up),” she said. “… Any woman should know that that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

The investigation

The page program involves high school seniors, ages 17-19, who help set up meetings, deliver messages and otherwise assist lawmakers and staff. They are each sponsored by a legislator, are paid $8 an hour and are supervised by the House sergeant-at-arms.

Early in the session, the page said, a committee secretary warned her that Hixon and Holtzclaw could be too forward. She remembers the secretary saying something to the tune of “these two are creepy and if they come on to you in any way, come to me,” the page said.

When the harassment began, the page first went to a committee secretary, who then notified the chamber’s previous sergeant-at-arms. Another committee secretary also became aware of what was happening and spoke to the page about it.

Collectively, the women decided they needed to tell House leadership, the page said.

The typed complaint given to the AG’s Office included observations of the page: “Throughout the session, I have given [the page] several heart-to-heart conversations about men and how to know [and act] in the event that men make her uncomfortable. Although she does not say that it makes her uncomfortable, she will ‘run away’ after these events and thinks they are ‘weird.’ 

Both committee secretaries confirmed to the Statesman that the harassment complaint was filed, but declined to speak further about the situation.

House Speaker Scott Bedke went to the AG’s Office after learning of the problem. He and a deputy attorney general then privately addressed Hixon and Holtzclaw about the page’s allegations.

Bedke said the deputy attorney general made it very clear to the pair of lawmakers that they needed to stop their behavior. “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind when they left,” Bedke said.

Hixon’s attorney, Gabe McCarthy, confirmed that outcome: “Mr. Hixon met with leadership one time to discuss this matter. Appropriately, no further action was taken.”

The matter for the lawmakers apparently ended there; documents and interviews produced no sign of further followups or more formal ethics complaints within the House. Only a fellow lawmaker — not a page or other staff — can file an ethics complaint.

An AG’s Office spokesman directed any questions about Cameron to Bedke. The House speaker told the Statesman he never spoke formally with Cameron, but simply turned that complaint over to the AG’s Office as Cameron was not a House lawmaker. Bedke did not know the outcome.

Bedke earlier said he never spoke to the page directly, but was the one who decided to switch her committee assignments. He said it did not occur to him to instead move the lawmakers to other committees, in part because the allegations did not rise to the level of that kind of discipline. And, he said, moving the legislators would have drawn much more attention to the incidents, which he did not want to put the page through.

Others familiar with the incident’s resolution confirmed the page was moved to other committees early in the process. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, is on the three-person Attache Committee that deals with legislative staff; she described the decision to move the page as “common sense.” Jeff Wall was the House assistant sergeant-at-arms during the 2017 session, and has since replaced the former sergeant-at-arms, who retired and could not be reached for this report. He said leadership decided the move “was in the best interest of the page.”

The page was only on the other committees for a few days before her temporary position ended and a new round of pages came into the Legislature.

She said she learned from one of the committee chairmen that she was being moved. She didn’t want to switch committees, she said, in part because it made the other pages curious about why she was moving. Wall also noted the page’s reluctance to move, saying pages usually begin to like their committees.

“They wanted to say that it wasn’t my fault, but it was the best option for the speaker,” the page said about being assigned to other committees.

She told two other female pages about what had happened, she said, and she also told the male page who replaced her on her committees.

While the page thought House leadership took her complaint seriously, she said she thought the previous sergeant-at-arms “almost didn’t believe me.” The page said she also worried her complaint disappointed the lawmaker who sponsored her.

New policies

News of the 2017 complaints comes amid a national discussion over sexual harassment that has already entered the Idaho Statehouse, driven by the #metoo movement that began in October.

Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, both encouraged and organized anti-sexual harassment training at the beginning of this year’s session. Wall said this year’s pages received a similar training about having a respectful workplace.

Lawmakers also drafted a revised respectful workplace policy that defines harassment and outlines how to report it. The process has added complications at the Capitol because many people there — including lobbyists like Cameron — are not legislative employees.

The new draft addresses that wrinkle, providing steps for complaints involving “third parties” and designating the AG’s Office for legal advice and investigations. The policy lists remedies for various groups —including apologizing to an ethics committee referral for lawmakers, and apologizing to a referral to law enforcement for people who aren’t state workers. And it forbids retaliation against people who report harassment in good faith.

But it’s unclear exactly how any punishments would be enforced against the “third parties.” Other steps — including moving pages between committees — would depend on the circumstances of a particular complaint, Bedke said.

Susan Buxton, Idaho Division of Human Resources administrator, does not oversee legislative HR issues but helped give the harassment training at the Statehouse.

Speaking in general about workplace best practices, she said solutions and accommodations will vary based on each incident’s circumstances, including the kind of allegations made. She said it’s necessary to not punish a victim of harassment. Employers must look first at what actually happened and complete an investigation before they can determine their options, she said.

The most prominent harassment incident at the Capitol in recent years involved former state Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, who resigned in February 2012 after a female Senate staff member accused him of soliciting her in his office just months after McGee pleaded guilty to drunken driving. McGee later pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace in connection with the sexual harassment claim.

In January 2017, Bedke rebuked Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, by removing her from her committee assignments for making sexually charged remarks about her colleagues. Scott said at the time that female lawmakers rose to obtain committee chairmanships and other plum appointments only if they “spread their legs.”

Wall said he did not have any other complaints from pages about harassment in the Statehouse in the 2017 session, nor thus far this year. Bell, who is in her 15th term, said she has never heard of a similar complaint from a page.

Bedke previously said he has an “open door policy” for anyone who wishes to report harassment or similar concerns.

“There is no room at all for that,” he said.