COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — One of Ohio's most powerful lawmakers has been quietly cleared in a sexual harassment probe conducted by an outside law firm where he had worked for 36 years, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press.
Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz, of Cincinnati, was investigated after a female House employee complained Jan. 30 that statements he made at a staff going-away party had worsened an already hostile work environment at the Statehouse.
Seitz made light of a Statehouse sexual harassment scandal that prompted the resignation of then-Sen. Cliff Hite, a Republican, and made fun of one current and one former female lawmaker. Then-House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger forced Seitz to apologize to House members and the former lawmaker.
"The issue is that Rep. Seitz made remarks that glorified a sexual harasser and minimized his victim and all victims of sexual harassment," the complaint said. "I believe he made the comments with the intention of punishing women who have spoken up and to intimidate women from coming forward. I can't prove his intention but that is the effect his remarks will have. I am intimidated."
Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine's office retained Taft Stettinius & Hollister for up to $12,000 to conduct an independent review of the complaint, documents obtained through a public records request showed. Seitz left the firm in 2014 after more than three decades.
DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the firm reported having no conflicts associated with the contract, which runs through June 30.
"They conduct that conflict review internally and tell us if they're clean or not," he said. "It's their professional licensure that's at risk."
Seitz said Friday that he had nothing to do with hiring the special counsel and knew neither of the investigators from Taft who handled the case.
"This was politically motivated from the get-go, it's now been conclusively determined to be utterly meritless, and case closed," he said.
After an investigation that documents show included three interviews — of Seitz and two witnesses — the law firm concluded in April that Seitz had not violated the House's anti-harassment policy.
Among factors leading to that conclusion, according to the report: The off-site event fell outside the House's authority; Seitz had said he did not intend his remarks as harmful; and the woman who complained didn't actually attend the party, but read about it online.
The one man interviewed told investigators he recognized Seitz's comments during the Jan. 23 send-off for then-House Chief of Staff Mike Dittoe were "not nice" but that he and two women nearby laughed at the remarks. The one woman interviewed described herself as having a professional working relationship with Seitz that was "cordial." She couldn't recall the context of Seitz's remarks about Hite, the report said.
The woman who submitted the complaint declined to be interviewed after her identity was discovered by investigators.
"It is possible the complaint may have been made for political reasons based on the information received," the investigative report said. "The documentation alone, however, did not support such a finding."
Seitz said phrasing used by a group of Democratic female House members who sought to draw attention to Statehouse sexual harassment shortly after the party was nearly identical to the complainant's.
The investigation "proves nothing," said Scott Peterson, executive director of Checks and Balances Project, a pro-sustainability watchdog group that opposes Seitz's position against Ohio's clean energy standards.
Peterson said a review that appeared to exclude any witnesses offended by Seitz's statements or any victims of Statehouse sexual harassment didn't give taxpayers their money's worth.
"The Seitz investigation was a joke and the money should be refunded," he said.
The anonymous female employee also described:
- A former House member who "repeatedly and effusively " commented on her weight and required female House members "to kiss him on the cheek when they didn't want to."
- A different former member who "pressed the entire side of his body against the entire side of my body at a daytime reception."
- A male staffer who told another staffer he was mad at her "and then insisted she hug him to make up."