LINCOLN — Voices rose in the Nebraska Legislature on Tuesday morning as senators debated whether the allegations of inappropriate conduct by now-former Sen. Mike Groene were handled appropriately.
State Sen. Dan Hughes, chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, which handles such complaints, said he followed existing procedures in first seeking an “informal resolution” of complaints by a legislative staffer against Groene. He said he was also required to keep the issue confidential.
Kristina Konecko decided Friday that the informal resolution was not sufficient, Hughes said, so, as his her choice, she asked for an investigation.
Three state senators, he said, have now been appointed to a special committee to handle the probe: Sens. Tom Briese, John Arch and Anna Wishart.
Groene, 66, of North Platte announced his decision to resign Friday afternoon, soon after the allegations were reported that he took inappropriate and “objectifying” photos of a female staffer.
In other developments Tuesday, the Nebraska State Patrol announced it has opened an investigation into the matter, after consulting with Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson. The Patrol’s results will be forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office.
Hunt had sent a formal request for an investigation to the Patrol and the AG’s Office on Saturday.
Peterson emailed Hunt Tuesday, saying, “Senator Hunt, thank you for forwarding this information to us. We will begin our review of the matter. Sincerely, Doug Peterson.”
Several female senators rose Tuesday to question whether the case has been handled appropriately.
Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said that under current policies, the only recourse women have when confronting superiors in power is to go to the press.
Cavanaugh added that if she could “impeach” Hughes and the Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Mike Hilgers, over their handling of the matter, she would.
“You two men, men in the body, have failed,” she said, in a loud voice.
Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said the body should now have the courage to review its policies for handling complaints of workplace harassment.
Hunt, as well as Sens. Patty Pansing Brooks, Carol Blood and Cavanaugh, asked for changes such as creating an independent human relations agency to handle such complaints, rather than fellow senators.
“We know this stuff has been going on for a long time,” Blood said, but complaints about sexual harassment are still often dismissed as “that’s how he is” or “boys will be boys.”
Cavanaugh said that when she was 22 and working in Washington, D.C., she was groped in an elevator by a U.S. senator in front of his aide.
She was told, “Oh, you don’t get on an elevator with him.”
“That was the beginning and end of it,” Cavanaugh said. “I hope this body would be better than that.”
Sen. Julie Slama told her own story about being groped. “It’s clear the policy needs to be overhauled,” Slama said. “Our policies don’t protect staff and definitely don’t protect female senators.”
Both Slama and Pansing Brooks spoke in support of creating an ethics committee in the Legislature. Such a proposal was introduced in 2018 but was rejected.
Hughes, who sought an informal resolution to the complaints per legislative policy, said the three-senator committee will provide valuable advice on whether to change the workplace harassment complaint process.
No one, he said, discouraged Konecko from seeking an investigation.
He added that there is no evidence at this point that Sen. Groene shared the photographs he took with anyone else.
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