MADISON – Two days after a state lawmaker lost his bid for reelection, the Legislature released details of his sexual harassment of a Capitol staffer after withholding the records for months.
Rep. Staush Gruszynski, a Democrat from Green Bay, lost Tuesday by 58 percentage points in a primary election held less than a year after the public learned Gruszynski had harassed a Capitol staff member in October.
Records released Thursday related to the incident and subsequent investigation by the Legislature’s human resources officials show Gruszynski during a night of drinking with lawmakers and staff members repeatedly pressured one legislative staffer to have sex with him despite being rebuffed each time.
Gruszynski made comments suggesting the victim was to blame for his repeated advances, as if she had invited his behavior, according to the victim’s complaint.
“He kept saying ‘oh come on’ and ‘did I misread your signals’ over and over again,” the victim wrote. “He said ‘no one has to know’ ‘it can be quick’ and ‘I can just follow you home you know?’ He said ‘I thought you wanted this, I want you.’ I said no, not at all, you must be joking.”
“I was so shaken and upset at this point and felt scared to leave because I thought he would follow me,” she wrote. “I went into the bathroom and locked it and called (redacted) crying because I was so upset. I didn’t know what to do.”
The victim began to struggle with anxiety, fearful of running into Gruszynski at the Capitol, according to the investigative records. She began locking her office door and took time away from work.
Fear of retaliation within the Legislature is underscored by the fact that staff work for lawmakers on an at-will basis and can be fired at any time and for any reason.
Lawmakers also have the power to hire and fire human resources staff in charge of investigating claims of sexual harassment and assault. That fear could keep staff from reporting sexual harassment involving their bosses or make victims and human resources staff worry about losing their jobs, experts say.
Gruszynski apologized in a message on the night of the incident, according to the records, and did not remember what he said to the staffer when legislative human resources officials interviewed him after the victim filed a complaint.
He cried and said he was remorseful and had stopped drinking when human resources officials interviewed him about the incident, according to the investigative records.
“I’m sorry for my actions that night, I’m sorry. I don’t ever want anyone to be afraid to be around me. I feel incredibly guilty and remorseful,” Gruszynski is quoted as saying. “I can’t remember what I did, but I am taking proactive steps, because my job is important to me. I don’t want to ever treat anyone that way again, and I want to stay married and see my daughter.”
The records had been until this week withheld from reporters since the investigation in November, which prompted media outlets including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to file a lawsuit in March to obtain them.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the release of the records shows the Legislature could have done so months ago while voters were deciding whether Gruszynski should continue to hold a position of power.
“They basically waited until it no longer made any difference, which is unfortunate,” Lueders said.
“It’s maybe even unfortunate for Gruszynski because maybe people would have reacted less harshly if they knew the facts of the situation rather than just being forced to imagine them from a general description of the nature of the complaint,” Lueders said.
The release of the records also comes after the victim talked about her experience with a Capital Times reporter last week.
The records were redacted to ensure the victim could not be identified, legislative officials said. The names of lawmakers who were present during a portion of the night when the harassment occurred also were withheld.
Amy Scarr, a Madison-based employment attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said the Legislature should “at a minimum” release names of legislators, including those who are considered witnesses.
“The citizens and taxpayers of this state have a right to know about the actions (or inactions) of their representatives,” Scarr said in an email. “Without that knowledge, there is no open government or public scrutiny of government officials.”
Amy Jorgenson, director of the Legislature’s human resources office, and Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller did not immediately answer questions about why the lawmakers’ names were withheld.
The Legislature has consistently withheld records related to sexual harassment committed by lawmakers, citing a desire to protect details that could identify victims and to prevent creating a chilling effect on future victims who don’t want their experiences released publicly.
The policy also helps protect state lawmakers, however, from facing questions about the way they choose to use the position of power voters have entrusted them with.
“To the extent that there was any public policy basis for denial, it was easily cured through redaction,” Lueders said. “I hope this puts an end to the Legislature’s illegal policy of suppressing information regarding allegations of legislative misconduct.”
Gruszynski is the second state lawmaker in as many years to lose an election after sexually harassing or assaulting a colleague.
In 2018, Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick of Milwaukee lost reelection after voters learned he had kissed two women against their will.
In 2014, then-Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer was charged with two felony counts of second-degree sexual assault of a woman outside a Republican Party event in 2011. And in 2012, taxpayers shelled out $75,000 to resolve a sexual harassment and racial discrimination claim made by an aide to then-state Sen. and now City of Milwaukee Treasurer Spencer Coggs.
In the cases involving Kramer and Coggs, the Legislature refused to release the related complaints. In 2017, legislative officials said there had been three other undisclosed complaints of sexual harassment in the Legislature in the past decade — one more in the Senate and two more in the Assembly — but did not release details.
Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck of Madison said Tuesday’s election showed voters don’t want to put up with such behavior from the people they elect to represent them.
“For far too long, this was just accepted and I think in the political world probably more than other places — this is a clear sign that that’s changing,” she said.
Subeck said the Legislature needs to create a pathway for an independent investigation of such allegations. She said the current process to deal with sexual harassment doesn’t have many options for accountability measures.
“Ultimately our responsibility is to our staff. We should have more tools available to us to be able to address these issues of sexual harassment when they occur — we should not have to wait for voters to take action many many months later,” she said.