This story has been updated.
Nebraska State Sen. Mike Groene’s decision to photograph a female staffer could spur a criminal probe of the cantankerous voice of North Platte.
Two Omaha-area senators also hope the incident might encourage the Legislature to reconsider how it handles workplace harassment complaints against its own members.
Groene said Friday he would resign after the aide went public with the harassment complaint she filed. The governor expects Groene’s resignation letter next week.
On Saturday, Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha asked for a criminal investigation of Groene’s actions. She wrote to the Attorney General’s Office and the Nebraska State Patrol.
“The morality and ethics of this is one question,” Hunt told the Nebraska Examiner on Saturday. “The legality is another. My real question is, did anything illegal happen?”
Hunt’s letter focuses on two parts of state law:
- The first concerns possible misuse of state property. Groene’s staffer found the photographs, which the Nebraska Sunrise News has described as provocative, on Groene’s laptop computer after he asked her to clean out his email. Groene at first denied taking any photos. He later told the Examiner he had taken photos of the staffer but denied they were sexual in nature.
- The second concerns taking and sharing sensitive pictures without a person’s consent. Groene’s staffer has said the photos were taken without her knowledge. Sunrise News said it appeared Groene took the photos and emailed them to others with captions of a sexual nature. Groene said legislative IT workers found nothing inappropriate.
Who knew, who reported
Hunt said the Legislature needs to do more than hope that law enforcement investigates the situation. She said she and other members of both political parties want to know what other senators knew, when they knew it and when and whether they reported it.
A State Patrol spokesman said Saturday the agency had received Hunt’s letter and is in communication with the Attorney General’s Office. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Doug Peterson said the letter “will be reviewed and then we will assess our role.”
Hunt said she decided to write the letter after speaking with former Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha about how senators addressed disgraced former Sen. Bill Kintner. Kintner didn’t immediately resign in 2016 after it was revealed that he had video chatted inappropriately with someone other than his wife while using a state computer.
Kintner was investigated, and authorities said they believed he misused state resources. But he avoided prosecution because the chat happened out of state.
“I don’t know that Groene needs to be made an example of or anything,” Hunt said. “Sometimes there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back. I think a lot of people are done with this pattern of harassment within the institution.”
Staffers in gray area
Hunt and Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said Saturday that Groene’s actions show the need for the Legislature to improve how it handles human resources complaints from employees.
Legislative employees don’t have an easy answer of where to turn when they want to report allegations of bad behavior by bosses or co-workers, both the senators said. Staffers work in a gray area, Cavanaugh said, as nearly independent contractors for individual senators rather than as state employees protected by a union.
The Legislature’s harassment policy offers staffers multiple places to report being harassed, but only one path to getting a complaint handled. That’s through the senators on the Legislature’s Executive Board.
Executive Board members aren’t independent, Hunt said, and some might have political motivations to avoid stepping in when allegations are made. What if someone’s boss has friends on the board or serves on the board himself, Cavanaugh asked.
Said Hunt: “One thing that we’re definitely going to take out of this is reports of any kind of harassment or bad behavior in the workplace, it can’t be processed through a political entity. The exec board is a political entity filled with political folks elected by a political body.”
State Sen. Dan Hughes, chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, confirmed Friday that a formal complaint had been lodged against Groene. He said it was being taken “very seriously.” Speaker Mike Hilgers, who is running for Nebraska attorney general, referred questions to Friday’s statement from Hughes.
Hunt said she wants the Legislature to adopt a human resources process that’s “fair and effective,” with consequences that are “consistent and predictable.”
Outside consultant suggested
Cavanaugh said she’d like to see the Legislature hire an outside consultant to rework the harassment policy to make it more accessible and modern, so it better reflects how such issues are handled in most workplaces.
She said she also plans to propose an interim study to explore adding a separate Ethics Committee that sets out sensible policies and enforces them more transparently. Ex-legislative staffers she spoke with love the idea, she said.
“The situation now has brought a light to the problem, but it’s not a problem the people in the Legislature were unaware of,” Cavanaugh said. “When we had our workplace harassment training back in January, it was definitely not taken seriously by the body.”
Groene’s legislative staffer, Kristina Konecko, in a phone call to the Examiner on Saturday night, said her decision to file a workplace harassment complaint was “completely” hers.
“I haven’t been advised or directed by anyone,” she said, which includes any attorney or member of the Legislature’s Executive Committee.
Konecko declined to comment on whether she supported a criminal investigation but pointed out that her stance has been not to pursue her complaint “legally.”
“I am not going to share any information or answer any questions at this time,” she said. “That’s because I need to make sure my rights are protected.”
When asked whether she planned to release the photographs in question, she said she had not decided. But she said the description of the pictures that she gave initially to the Nebraska Sunrise News was accurate — that they were “objectifying and demeaning” and that some were “zoom-close-ups of provocative body parts with explicit subject lines.”
Concerning the Legislature’s procedures for investigating complaints of workplace harassment, Konecko said “there’s always a better way to do this.”
“I am grateful for people reaching out and giving me support and encouragement,” she said.
‘In awe of her strength’
Cavanaugh, speaking of Konecko, said she was “in awe of her strength” to come forward. “She clearly has made a difference with her voice in elevating the conversation about what is wrong with the process.”
Hunt said she knows that policy changes won’t end harassment. But talking about the impact the Groene photographs had on a good employee should help senators make incremental changes, she said.
“When Kintner resigned, the culture changed,” Hunt said. “When news came out about Groene, culture changed. When he resigned, the culture changed. It’s not fast. It’s slow. And someday when the culture changes, it’ll be because we reached the point where the culture changed enough.”
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.