Wisconsin Assembly approves mandatory sex harassment training, 92-0

MADISON — Wisconsin Assembly members and employees will have to attend mandatory sexual harassment training every two years under a resolution the chamber overwhelmingly adopted Tuesday, the same day a lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct returned to the chamber.

The Republican-controlled Assembly passed the resolution 92-0 with no discussion. The vote came during the first floor session since two anonymous women accused Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick of Milwaukee drunkenly trying to kiss them during political events in 2011 and 2015. The women made the accusations in a December article from The Capital Times.

Democratic leaders have demanded Zepnick resign but he has refused and has agreed not to attend his party's caucuses.

He was in his customary seat in the chamber as the floor session began and took the podium to speak in honor of the late Robert Kardus, who served in the Assembly and on the Milwaukee Common Council in the 1960s and 1970s. The chamber listened in silence.

He voted for the mandatory sexual harassment training without comment and then sat quietly in his seat, studying his laptop. Zepnick told reporters after the Assembly adjourned that he supports the training resolution.

"I'm a little naive about how crass some people can be," he said. "It's best not to just leave everything to people's gut or common sense or best intentions and have some more formalized training and policies and procedures. I don't want anybody, male or female, to feel uncomfortable."

In regards to the allegations against him, Zepnick said The Capital Times should have identified his accusers "not because I want to expose them but it attaches a certain level of credibility on their part as well."

He also said he was taken aback by a University of Wisconsin-Madison department chairman's decision to inform students seeking internships in Zepnick's office about the allegations. He would never romantically pursue an intern, he said.

"Regardless of the status of my wife, it just ain't my thing," Zepnick said. He added that he's starting to lay the groundwork for a re-election bid.

The resolution calls on members and employees to attend mandatory training at the beginning of every two-year legislative session. The Legislature's attorneys have included sexual harassment training during orientation for new Assembly members and new state senators but attendance isn't mandatory.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called a mandatory session to review the chamber's sexual harassment policies in November as the #MeToo movement gained momentum. Vos and Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz introduced the mandatory training resolution on Thursday.

The speaker said during a news conference that even though the resolution states mandatory training will take place at the beginning of each legislative session, the first training will occur before the current legislative session ends this spring.

About a third of all legislative chambers across the country don't require lawmakers to receive sexual harassment training, according to an Associated Press review published earlier this month.

New state senators must receive sexual harassment training during a meeting with that chamber's chief clerk and human resources officials. Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk has said the Senate is considering making that training recurring.