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Hewett remark sparks new House policies

By Johanna Somers and Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: The Day

Published March 07. 2013 4:00AM
Flap leads speaker to set new sexual harassment reporting, training

Hartford - In response to allegations involving state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, the General Assembly will implement new sexual harassment reporting and training policies, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said Wednesday.

"Largely as a result of the conversations I was having with the women of our caucus, I think it is appropriate for us to develop a formal process for bringing forward complaints that may be experienced by any member, male or female, in the caucus," Sharkey said, "so we can have those items not addressed quietly but in a very public way, at least within these chambers."

The action was prompted by Hewett's "snake" comment to a teenage girl testifying before a legislative committee last week that led to revelations that legislative interns had complained about Hewett's behavior in the past.

After meeting Tuesday with the women of the Democratic caucus, Sharkey said he came to the conclusion that a sexual harassment reporting policy is needed.

Hewett did not attend the caucus meeting as Sharkey had requested. Sharkey said he wanted Hewett to be there to learn about "elements" of his behavior that might or might not have been brought to Hewett's attention.

"I was hoping he could attend the meeting that we had with the women in the caucus yesterday so he could perhaps address or hear from members about those incidents, but short of that I can't really advise Representative Hewett as to how to proceed at this point," Sharkey said.

Hewett sent a letter to Sharkey on Monday saying he considered the matter "closed" and would not be attending the meeting. Hewett has kept a low profile in recent days. He did not attend Wednesday's House session and did not return phone calls from The Day.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Hewett's fellow legislators from southeastern Connecticut weighed in about the controversy.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-18th District, said he knew Hewett to be "a kind and decent man."

"Honestly, I think he (Hewett) has been beaten up enough," he said.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, said the House is moving forward.

"We are putting clearer protocols in place to ensure that members of the public and our colleagues are treated with dignity and respect," she said.

State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said he believes Hewett was trying to be funny when he told the teen during an Appropriations Committee meeting: "If you're bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here."

The comment came after the teen said she had gotten over her shyness and fear of snakes by working at the Connecticut Science Center.

"He just flubbed it," Ryan said. "The business of the House will continue despite the controversy."

State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she knows Hewett likes to joke.

"It's OK to joke with your peers, but you have to watch it when you are joking with folks who are not your regular co-workers because they are not going to understand," she said.

On Monday, state Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, said that Hewett was not assigned female interns because of past complaints about his behavior. Flexer was the chairman of the General Assembly's Internship Committee in 2011 and 2012 and now serves as a member of the committee.

But on Wednesday a few legislators on the Internship Committee said they were unaware that Hewett was not being assigned female interns.

One of them, the committee's co-chairman, state Sen. Joseph Crisco, D-Woodbridge, said he did not recall Flexer ever mentioning the issue at a committee meeting. But he said he does not attend all the meetings and he focuses on assigning interns to senators, not to representatives.

Past committee member, state Rep. Elizabeth Boukas, D-Plainville, said she too had not heard that Hewett could not be assigned female interns. But she said she didn't take part in deciding which legislators worked with which interns. On Wednesday, Flexer said she had "nothing more to say."

While New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has called for Sharkey to investigate allegations that Hewett was sexually harassing females, Sharkey said that the steps he was taking now, such as creating a formal sexual harassment complaint process, would eliminate the need for investigations.

If there were to be an investigation, House members would be in charge of reprimanding Hewett, said state Rep. Arthur O'Neill, R-Southbury. To censure, expel or rebuke a legislator, the House speaker or House legislators would create a committee. A legislator who is censured could still vote, speak, propose amendments and work normally, he said.

House Republican spokesman Pat O'Neil said the last censure he could remember was in 1980, when former state Rep. Russell Reynolds, D-West Haven, was censured for writing a racial slur in a news agency's survey.

On Tuesday, House Republican Leader, Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, said he thought Sharkey responded well to Hewett's "inexcusable" comment to a teenager.

But, Cafero said, if there were more facts regarding Hewett's behavior, further action could be taken.

He said Flexer needs to explain what she said about Hewett not being assigned female interns.

"If it's untrue, it's unfair to Hewett. If it's true, we need to know the facts," he said.

Sharkey said on Wednesday that he, too, was unaware of Hewett not being assigned female interns.

"As far as Representative Hewett and allegations about previous conduct, I can only do what I know about as speaker," he said, adding he has done all he can do "at this point."

Sharkey said he could not say whether Hewett should resign.

"That is up to the voters of his district," he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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