Nebraska lawmaker who targeted a colleague during a graphic description of rape is reprimanded

A Nebraska lawmaker who invoked the name of a colleague while reading a graphic account of rape on the floor of the Legislature violated the body’s workforce sexual harassment policy, an outside investigator found, leading the body's governing board to issue Republican state Sen. Steve Halloran a letter of reprimand.

But that announcement Wednesday by state Sen. Ray Aguilar, chairman of the Legislature's Executive Board, was met with strong criticism from several lawmakers who said Halloran should have faced a censure vote by the full body.

“This is embarrassing and disappointing,” said Democratic state Sen. John Cavanaugh, who along with his sister and fellow Democratic lawmaker Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, were the target of Halloran's remarks. “As it stands right now, the Exec Board has said that it disapproves of this kind of language, but the Legislature has not.”

The report and reprimand came after Halloran repeatedly called out the name “Sen. Cavanaugh” while reading a graphic account of rape from a best-selling memoir, making it appear as if that lawmaker was the subject of the assault. His embellished reading from the memoir “Lucky” by Alice Sebold came on March 18 during debate of a bill that would have held school librarians and teachers criminally responsible for providing what it considers to be “obscene material” to students in grades K-12.

Most people in the chamber at the time — including Machaela Cavanaugh — understood the graphic comments to be directed at her, and she was visibly shaken immediately after Halloran’s remarks. Halloran insisted later that he was invoking the name of her brother as a way to get him to pay attention to the remarks.

In the report released Wednesday, an outside investigator found that Halloran’s remarks violated the Legislature’s workplace harassment policy that forbids verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic remarks around a person's body, clothing or sexual activity and sexually oriented remarks or discussion.

“It is the opinion of this outside investigative team that Sen. Halloran’s conduct and comments were reprehensible and should not be tolerated because they may lead to or foster a hostile work environment,” the report states.

The report found that the Legislature could go as far as to censure Halloran, which would not have affected his ability to speak on legislation or to serve on any committees. Any move to expel or otherwise hinder Halloran's duties would violate his constitutional free speech rights, the investigator said.

Halloran said he disagreed “that I was harassing anyone," and he said he was puzzled by the “righteous indignation” of some colleagues over his remarks.

“There's no concern about the kids and how a book like that might affect them," Halloran said Wednesday.

Machaela Cavanaugh thanked by name several lawmakers who publicly defended her and spoke out against Halloran's comments. She also called out Republican lawmakers who have defended Halloran or remained silent about his comments “morally bankrupt.”

"Your silence is complicit,” she said. “I don't care if you come up to me and say nice things to me. Your silence in the public forum is what I care about.

“You want to protect children from porn, but you don't care if my children are subjected to this public media circus!”

Not all Republicans in the officially nonpartisan, one-chamber Nebraska Legislature have remained silent about Halloran's remarks. Republican state Sen. Julie Slama has castigated Halloran repeatedly for his remarks and said the decision not to put a censure vote before the full Legislature was wrong.

"“If he had any respect for this institution or his colleagues, he would resign,” Slama said.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, a lawyer by trade, said she plans to introduce a rule change next year to allow lawmakers more time to object to language used in floor speech. Currently, legislative rules say an objection must be made immediately after the remarks a lawmaker finds objectionable.

“I think we should learn from the difficulties we've had here that our rules don't work — that particular one, anyway,” she said. “I do think we should hold each other to account.”