Report: Senate GOP Harassment Investigator Said Women Clerks Should Dress to Avoid Drawing Attention of “Older Male Members”

The investigator, GOP operative Charlie Smithson, made the comment at a spring event hosted by an organization focused on electing women to public office

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

The internal investigator picked to look into allegations of sexual harassment within the Iowa Senate’s GOP caucus said last spring that he has encouraged senators to tell their young female clerks to dress more conservatively to avoid the attention of “older male members” of the state Legislature, according to a Bleeding Heartland report Thursday that includes a nearly 5-minute audio clip of his remarks.

The investigator, Charlie Smithson, is the secretary of the Iowa Senate, serving as the body’s chief parliamentarian, and a longtime GOP operative. Last month, he concluded his co-authored investigation, which detailed an ongoing culture of harassment within the Senate GOP caucus and a reluctance to report incidents for fear of retaliation.

“Some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit, right? Okay?”

At a March 28 event hosted by 50-50 in 2020, an organization focused on getting women elected to political office, Smithson discussed the Legislature’s 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?'”

Smithson went on: “Usually what it’s been, the skirt’s kind of short, or the top’s too short. 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.” Pressed to clarify his remarks further, Smithson told women at the event, “Don’t not run because of the clothing issue,” which he added was “an extremely minor part of what I have to worry about on a day-to-day basis.”

“He’s the last person I would want running a sexual harassment investigation.”

Members of the audience at the event described to Bleeding Heartland their surprise at hearing Smithson’s remarks. “Our collective jaw was on the floor,” one said. “A lot of us were pretty stunned at his comments, especially to this audience,” said another, Louisa Dykstra. “He’s the last person I would want running a sexual harassment investigation.”

Smithson was tapped to investigate the sexual harassment allegations in the GOP Senate office after Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director there who said she was fired in 2013 in retaliation for reporting harassment, received a $1.75 million settlement at the taxpayers’ expense. He was selected by Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, who fired Anderson for, he continues to maintain, poor workplace performance.

Dix has resisted calls to step down from his leadership position over the situation. But he may be in hot water after initially refusing to release Smithson’s report to the public and apparently falsely claiming “with complete and utter openness and confidence” that there was “nothing that has come to me as a result of that investigation or any other conversations with our employees that indicates this is an ongoing problem within the staff.”

After a public backlash, a redacted version of the report was eventually released. Among its findings were that Senate GOP caucus staffers reported “an environment on the Senate Floor with Senators making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences,” including recent incidents in which “one occasion of [redacted] making a sexually suggestive comment during the 2017 Session” earlier this year and, prior to its start, a member “making sexually suggestive comments” in regards to “proposed legislation on dense breast tissue.”

The report also found that several staffers interviewed as part of the investigation “indicated they possess a fear of retaliation, which is why they did not feel comfortable reporting any instances of harassment.” The report added that “they would be unlikely to report any future incidents, should they arise[,] due to this fear.”

Gavin Aronsen
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.