I9 SPECIAL REPORT: No sex harassment reports, no problem?

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- A more than two-month-long I9 investigation found only two reports of sexual harassment in seven years at the four largest cities in the TV9 viewing area. Some experts warn that data is misleading and is a sign culture may need to change.

An Associated Press project found just one report of sexual harassment in the state legislature in ten years, a case that recently ended with a $1.4 million dollar settlement. But we know that is wrong. Two state reports since then have noted, "disturbing issues present in the work culture of the Iowa Legislature" and specific instances of sexual harassment that went unreported. Our own investigation found similar data in eastern Iowa cities along with little to no reports of sexual harassment. A number some experts say is likely wrong, too.

The cities of Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City and Waterloo are not only some of the largest metros in Eastern Iowa, they're also among the largest employers, with nearly 4,000 staffers combined. But in the past seven years, our I9 open records requests found those cities recorded only two complaints of sexual harassment – one in Dubuque and one in Cedar Rapids. That sounds good but some experts believe it's too good to be true.

"I'd put money on a bet that said that's not accurate in real life," said Tiffany O'Donnell, CEO of Iowa Women Lead Change.

Iowa Women Lead Change is a non-profit group that works to empower women in the workplace. I9 told O'Donnell what our records request had revealed.

"Sadly not terribly surprised," said O'Donnell. "I say this because the climate has been I feel up until now one where there wasn't a lot of trust between employees and reporting complaints like that. You wouldn't really go to HR unless you were ready to walk out the door."

O'Donnell has reason to be skeptical. A 2016 federal study published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found anywhere from 25% to 85% of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace.

"It's really important for each individual organization to look at it and address whether they have an issue," said sexual harassment attorney, Mark Hudson. "You want to create an environment where people can report it and then you'll take it seriously. The consequences are you lose employees and from a legal standpoint the consequences are you could be sued."

Hudson said employers should have clear policies surrounding sexual harassment, something every city we spoke to has. But he also recommended agencies conduct regular sexual harassment training sessions and consider putting out employee satisfaction surveys.

Records obtained by I9 reveal only Iowa City and Cedar Rapids have conducted some form of sexual harassment training in recent years and Cedar Rapids is the only city that's put out an employee satisfaction survey. That survey compiled this past summer did not specifically address sexual harassment but in it, nearly 1 in 4 disagreed that the city "cares about me as a person".

Dubuque City manager Michael Van Milligen and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart both were not surprised we found a lack of sexual harassment reports. Nevertheless, both pointed to ongoing efforts to improve workplace cultures.

"We've had an intercultural competency program now for about ten years however with the latest revelations happening around the county and happening, we're certainly looking at beefing up that program," said Van Milligen.

"We just hired a full times HR director," said Waterloo mayor, Mayor Quentin Hart. "What our HR director, he's been able to do was go out and begin the process of harassment training."

Mayor Hart and Van Milligen tell I9 the training offered in both cities aren't focused on sexual harassment but it is included. And in the case of Waterloo, Hart says their training has already been given to two departments within the city. It's his goal to have all agencies trained soon. In Dubuque, Van Milligen says everyone has already been trained.

"The biggest room we have is room for improvement," said Hart. "Just because employees had zero cases that does not mean that we stop the message about the type of environment or workplace that we want to have and see."

Other cities I9 spoke to did offer written statements.

Jim Throgmorton, Iowa City's mayor, said in part, "I anticipate that the Council would, in collaboration with the City Manager and staff, review your findings and consider whether changes in City policy are required."

In Cedar Rapids interim Human Resources Director Sandi Folwer reaffirmed a commitment that any, "incidents are thoroughly investigated, and appropriate disciplinary action is taken against any employee who violates the City's harassment policy."

As for that state report we referenced earlier, it has similar recommendations as we found, calling for regular sexual harassment training and establishing a formal complaint process.