GOP Sexual Harassment Investigator Defends Comments on Clerks’ Revealing Clothing

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Charlie Smithson, secretary of the Iowa Senate, in 2008. Screenshot via IowaPoliticsDotCom/YouTube

Contacted by Des Moines Register reporter William Petroski, an investigator who recently co-authored a report on allegations of sexual harassment within the Iowa GOP Senate caucus defended remarks he made earlier this year about recommending that women clerks in the office not wear overly revealing clothing lest they draw the attention of “some of our older male members.”

In March, speaking to a nonpartisan group whose mission is to elect more women to public office, the investigator, Secretary of the Iowa Senate Charlie Smithson, discussed Statehouse dress code. “Both in the House and in the Senate it’s never been an issue for the elected person,” he said. “It’s been the clerk. A lot of the clerks you get are younger, and unfortunately, sometimes the females wear some stuff that kind of drew some attention. And so part of my job is to go to the member and say, ‘Hey, you might want to tell your clerk to wear something different. Some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit, right? Okay? You know what I mean?'”

“Usually what it’s been, the skirt’s kind of short, or the top’s too short,” he added during the event. “And some of these clerks are, you know, I can say this, that they look really nice. They’re younger. But for them it’s a different environment than what we’re used to.”

On Monday, Smithson told the Register that his comments — first reported by Bleeding Heartland — did not reflect his own views. Instead, he explained, he had failed to clarify in March that he was passing along what he’d been told by two women working as clerks in the office who expressed concerns about other clerks dressing overly casually — specifically, a woman wearing revealing clothing and a man whose attire they thought failed to comply with the Senate’s dress code.

Smithson said that he resolved the issue by speaking with senators and asking them to address it.

“It wasn’t like it was a directive from the Senate president or anything,” he told the Register. “It was a couple of clerks who came in and I was, like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And it was, like, ‘Just help the members. These are their clerks.’ And that was the end of it,” Smithson said. “It wasn’t anything formal. It wasn’t anything in writing. To me, it was resolved. The clerks did not dress that way anymore, and that was the end of it.”

The report Smithson co-authored based on his investigation into sexual harassment allegations, which was recently released after initial resistance from Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, found there was an ongoing culture of harassment in the GOP Senate caucus and that several staffers were unwilling to speak out about it for fear of retaliation. The investigation stemmed from a lawsuit filed by former office communications director Kirsten Anderson, who won a $1.75 million settlement from the state after alleging she was fired in 2013 in retaliation for reporting harassment.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.