Female Nebraska lawmakers call for change amid photo probe

FILE - Neb. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte holds up a spreadsheet as he speaks in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Nebraska state Sen. Mike Groene denied accusations Friday, Feb. 18, 2022 that he took inappropriate photos of a female legislative aide without her knowledge, but he said he was going to resign next week to avoid putting his family through a public ordeal. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Several female Nebraska state lawmakers on Tuesday railed against the Legislature's handling of a male state senator who resigned after admitting that he took photos of a female subordinate without her consent, calling for an overhaul of their internal policies and recounting their own experiences of being groped, harassed and belittled.

The push by half a dozen female lawmakers from both parties in the officially unicameral Legislature came less than a day after state Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, abruptly stepped down and abandoned his campaign to be a University of Nebraska Regent.

Groene, a blunt and often abrasive Republican lawmaker, acknowledged Friday that he took photos of the legislative staffer in his office. But he said none of the images were sexual in nature and that he also snapped pictures of other staffers and office visitors, including his wife.

The former staffer, Kristina Konecko, filed a complaint with the Legislature's Executive Board in which she described the photos as “objectifying and demeaning." She said some included zoomed-in close-ups of provocative body parts with explicit subject lines — an allegation Groene has denied.

Konecko, who consented to have her name used, told The Associated Press that no one pressured her to come forward with the complaint against Groene or tried to stop her. She declined to comment further on her allegations, citing an investigation launched by lawmakers.

The female lawmakers said Tuesday that the Legislature's method of handling such complaints isn't adequate. Several called for the creation of a legislative ethics committee, which was an idea that was briefly floated after another former Republican lawmaker, state Sen. Bill Kintner, acknowledged that he had cybersex with a woman using his state-issued laptop.

State Sen. Wendy DeBoer, of Bennington, said she had an encounter years ago that led her to question herself and affected how she interacted with others. DeBoer said she became wary around other men and would ask herself if it was OK to wear certain colors of clothing.

“If you haven't had something like this happen to you, you may not understand the gravity of the situation," she said, at times fighting back tears. “It may seem like too much fuss is being made. It happened to me years ago, and your basic trust level of the world is disrupted."

State Sen. Julie Slama, of Sterling, recalled how she was groped at a political event but buried her feelings because she had experienced worse trauma in college. She noted that she has also received rape and death threats while serving in the Legislature.

“Our policies definitely don't protect staff and they don't protect female senators," said Slama, a Republican. “As a young female, you worry that it's going to be the thing that defines you."

And state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, shared a story about her time as a congressional staffer in Washington when she was 22. She said she once got on an elevator with a male senator who was not her boss, and the senator groped her in front of his staffer. Cavanugh said she was later told, “You don't get on an elevator with him."

“I would hope this (Legislature) would be better than that," Canvaugh said. “We aren't there yet.”

State Sen. Megan Hunt accused Groene of victim-blaming, pointing to his comments to reporters that Konecko was “kind of a strait-laced person” and that he hadn’t meant to offend her.

“This incident is another routine, typical and all-too-common situation of a younger woman experiencing boorish, inappropriate, unwanted behavior from a male superior in power,” said Hunt, of Omaha, who has asked Attorney General Doug Peterson and the Nebraska State Patrol to investigate the alleged incident.

State Sen. Carol Blood, of Bellevue, said the Legislature's current practices for investigating harassment claims reminded her “of what I experienced in the workforce in the 1970s," when allegations were often brushed aside.

“We've never really caught up to this decade," Blood said. “When we have concerns and sometimes complaints, the response is usually, ‘Well, that's just how the person is.'"

The Legislature's current workforce harassment policy begins with the chairman of the Executive Board meeting with the accuser and the accused to try to reach an informal, confidential agreement. If that option fails, the accuser has the right to seek a formal investigation. Informal investigations are kept confidential to try to protect accusers who may wish to keep the matter private.

Sen. Dan Hughes, the Executive Board chairman, said he followed that process and contacted three state lawmakers who will conduct an investigation with help from an outside consultant.

The panel members are state Sens. John Arch, a La Vista Republican; Tom Briese, an Albion Republican; and Anna Wishart, a Lincoln Democrat.

Hughes said the investigation will be “thorough, prompt" and is designed to protect the accuser's rights and ensure public confidence in the process. He said he has asked the panel to prepare a report that will be released publicly, and any evidence of criminal behavior will be given to the attorney general. The panel may also recommended changes to the Legislature's harassment policy.

“While we all hope that nothing like this happens again, it is our responsibility to find ways to improve our policies,” Hughes said.

Hughes, a Republican, also said he hadn't seen any evidence to suggest that Groene had shared his photos with anyone else. He said legislative technology staffers searched Groene's laptop and personal cellphone, including his emails and hard drives, and found no evidence that Groene forwarded the images.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that he plans to appoint Groene's replacement soon. Groene represents a swath of western Nebraska that includes the city of North Platte.

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