As #MeToo gains traction, more in power stand accused

The stories now surfacing come as no surprise to women, expert says.

Republican Cliff Hite rolled through the Ohio Statehouse underground parking garage in his convertible on Oct. 10, following a state employee who he had been trying to get into bed for more than two months, according to an eight-page report that detailed a complaint against the former state senator.

The woman, who worked in the Legislative Service Commission copy room, refused his offer to get into the car, the report said.

The next day, Hite, 63, turned up at the woman’s office, carrying two bouquets of flowers, according to the report. Tucked into one bouquet was a note that said in part: “Oh, and if you like my convertible you’ll like me too. 101”

Hite’s office number was Room 101.

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Hite’s pursuit of the state employee, documented in the Oct. 18 LSC report written by attorney Lynda Jacobson at the behest of service commission director Mark Flanders, is an example of the type of alleged encounters that have surfaced since the New York Times’s Oct. 5 investigation documenting sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The story led to more women, including famous actresses, coming forward to say they, too, had been harassed or assaulted by Weinstein.

In the following weeks, millions of women posted #MeToo on social media to say that they had been sexually assaulted, abused or harassed. More powerful men stood accused of bad behavior: former President George H.W. Bush, award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, political journalist Mark Halperin.

President Donald Trump had previously been accused of sexual harassment, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during an Oct. 27 briefing that all the women who have made accusations against the president are lying.

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L. Camille Hebert, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert in sexual harassment issues, said the stories now surfacing of women routinely facing harassment on the job and elsewhere are surprising only to men. Women, she said, were previously reluctant to come forward, and often kept it even from those close to them.

“I suspect there are husbands and boyfriends and fathers who are going ‘Oh, really? This happened?’” she said.

“I think right now, lots of (men) should be worried because I think there is this sense in which women normally don’t come forward because they’re afraid or they’re ashamed or whatever,” she said. “Right now there is sort of a catharsis going on where a lot of people are coming forward. I don’t think it’s going to continue, but right now I think a lot of people, if they’ve engaged in this behavior, should be worried.”

Hite, like many of those who have been accused, held enormous power as a sitting senator. He resigned Oct. 17, listing part of the reason failing health. But he also faced a complaint from the woman he first began pursuing in early August with a Facebook friend request and messages in which he said he couldn’t stop thinking about her and needed a companion for sex and oral sex, according to the commission’s report.

“You have no idea how much I can please you,” he wrote. The eight-page report was forwarded to Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof on Oct. 26 and released last week.

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For his part, Hite said in a written statement that he disagreed with many of the representations made in the complaint and added, “I thought that the conversational tone, as well as the mild flirtation, was welcome and reciprocated.”

‘I don’t think it’s going to stop’

Lily Whitehead, 50, of Dayton, said she has been assaulted, molested, groped and harassed throughout her life. She added her voice to the chorus of “Me Too” in the hope of raising awareness and to bring comraderie to what can be a terribly isolating trauma.

“It puts a face to it that a lot of people didn’t expect. Maybe a lot of people don’t know that ‘Oh, my friend Lily has been through this,’ or that so-and-so has been through this,” Whitehead said. “I don’t think it’s going to stop.”

A 38-year-old Oakwood woman, who did not want to be identified, said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow U.S. Air Force cadet when she was 21 and later sexually harassed by an officer who outranked her but was not in her chain of command. The Pentagon, along with Congress, in recent years has shined a spotlight on inappropriate sexual behavior involving service members as more incidents have come to light.

The former cadet said she isn’t surprised by the volume of women posting #MeToo on social media.

“I’m not some actress trying to get into a movie in Hollywood,” she said. “It happens to even us mundane, everyday people.”

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Scott Warrick, a Columbus-based attorney who specializes in human resources issues, said he doesn’t believe the #MeToo campaign and Harvey Weinstein story will bring about long-term change.

“I’ve watched these cycles go around for 30 years now and I’ve seen things come to the front,” he said. “Lasting change comes about when there is a new law and it forces people to act.”

There is no shortage of examples of powerful people in government, business and media being accused of sexual harassment. For some it triggers downfall, but for others it’s a glancing blow.

Twenty-six years ago, millions of Americans watched as law professor Anita Hill testified on live television that her one-time boss, Clarence Thomas, sexually harassed her. Hill said Thomas asked her out, boasted about his sexual prowess and his own anatomy. Thomas vehemently denied the accusations and was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A 2008 sexual harassment scandal in the Ohio Attorney General’s office led to a different outcome. Democrat Marc Dann resigned after just 17 months on the job, a downfall that was triggered in part by a sexual harassment complaint two 26-year-old female staff members filed against Tony Gutierrez, Dann’s neighbor and friend from Youngstown who he had appointed to a top level management post.

Gutierrez was later sentenced to 45 days in jail and five years probation on charges related to misconduct in office.

Retaliation feared

Warrick said speaking up carries risks.

Retaliation has eclipsed race discrimination as the top charge filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that handles workplace harassment and discrimination complaints, he noted.

His advice to those who believe they’re harassed: File a report. The law provides protection for employees, job applicants and college students who experience a hostile work environment or discrimination based on sex, race, creed, religion or national origin.

His advice to employers: Put every employee through harassment training at least once every three years, review your policies, set standards higher than what the law mandates and fire those who fall short of those standards.

Warrick acknowledged that only a small percentage of the population — maybe 5 percent — believe hate speech, discrimination, harassment or assault is acceptable. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do a tremendous amount of harm, he said.

“There are 300 million Americans. If 5 percent are missing a screw, that’s 15 million derelicts walking around,” he said. “That’s 15 million perverts and bigots.”

Whitehead, the 50-year-old Dayton woman who says she’s repeatedly encountered harassment, hopes something positive comes out of the #MeToo movement.

“It’d be great if something more than awareness comes out of it — maybe if people speak up more so they know they’re not alone,” she said. “That would be great.”

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