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The Nevada Legislature building as seen in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

Update 2-27-18 at 1:25 p.m.: The Legislative Commission approved on Tuesday a contract to have the law firm that conducted an investigation last year into sexual harassment complaints against former Democratic Sen. Mark Manendo establish a permanent reporting system for complaints at the Legislature.

Legislative Counsel Bureau Rick Combs said that setting up the reporting system will cost about $15,000 and maintaining it on an annual basis will cost an estimated $5,000. Those costs would not include expenses for any independent investigations that the firm deems necessary out of the complaint received through the reporting system.

The telephone hotline is expected to be set up soon,  with the online portal up in a month or two.

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The law firm that conducted a sexual harassment investigation last year into Democratic ex-Sen. Mark Manendo’s conduct could soon be working on a permanent basis to field harassment complaints out of the Legislature.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau is proposing a contract with Van Dermyden Maddux, an investigations law firm that has offices in both California and Nevada and is currently maintaining a harassment complaint system for the California Senate. The proposal is up for review by the 12-member Legislative Commission at its meeting on Tuesday.

“I think it’s important that people who have been subjected to it know that we mean business,” said Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson. “People shouldn’t have to be subjected to mistreatment when they’re doing their jobs.”

If the contract is approved, the firm would be responsible for setting up and maintaining a phone hotline and an online portal, which would allow complainants and witnesses to upload photos or other documents to support their allegations. Investigators would be allowed to continue a conversation with the person submitting the complaint while maintaining his or her anonymity, helping them determine whether the conduct they experienced constitutes a violation of the Legislature’s harassment policy.

If it does, legislative leaders would have the prerogative to have the firm investigate it, investigate it themselves or have another firm step in.

LCB Director Rick Combs said the cost of an ongoing contract hadn’t yet been settled but was expected to come up at the Tuesday meeting. Frierson said there would be an initial charge to set the system up, with additional billing depending on how often complaints are lodged and how extensively the firm has to investigate.

The proposal comes in the wake of a last-minute resolution, AJR12, directing the LCB to establish a reporting system for complaints of sexual harassment. The measure was introduced and passed in the waning moments of the legislative session in June.

In the past, people seeking to report harassment would have to file a complaint with leaders of the Senate or Assembly or the director of the LCB, an arrangement that some felt could compromise their confidentiality or would introduce bias into the process.

“There was no real way to come forward anonymously,” Frierson said. “And if there was an issue specifically with the leader of either caucus of either house, or that perception of favoritism because of existing relationships, there were little options to people coming forward.”

Van Dermyden Maddux was hired by LCB in early May to independently investigate allegations against Manendo. Justin Kochan, one of the firm’s attorneys, interviewed 58 people, including the state senator, as part of his investigation.

Kimberly Mull, a lobbyist for victims’ rights who prompted the investigation into Manendo after bringing forward concerns to Senate leadership last year, described the independent investigation process as a “completely positive experience.”

“It was just a very victim-focused approach, and that’s what you need for the victims,” Mull said. “But the perpetrators, too, those who are accused, you have someone who is putting steps in place that is making sure that everything is neutral, that they can come at it from absolutely no opinion, no insight whatsoever until they’re actually getting the actual facts. It protects the parties all the way around.”

The investigation into Manendo cost the state nearly $70,000, with the firm charging $265 an hour for attorney’s fees and $120 hour for any work done by paralegals.

The final report, which was submitted to legislative lawyers, concluded that Manendo had engaged in at least 14 instances of misconduct in the 2017 legislative session, in addition to acts in previous sessions. He resigned on July 18, 2017; the full report was not made public.

Van Dermyden Maddux, which specializes in workplace investigations, was one of two law firms hired by the California Senate in December to investigate all future allegations of sexual abuse, assault and harassment.

Other jurisdictions that have dealt with high-profile harassment allegations, including the city of Henderson, have also announced plans to set up a hotline for complaints.

“I think that there is a growing concern about the culture within legislatures nationally,“ Frierson said. “My hope is that this serves a deterrent purpose, and that it, hopefully, empowers people who might otherwise feel like they didn’t have a voice in light of a power differential.”

Mull praised the approach of having a third-party responsible for receiving and investigating any allegations to create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward to report.

“If we’ve learned anything through this movement across the country and in this last legislative session here in Nevada it’s that by having an independent third party you are creating an environment, fostering an environment that is victim friendly, victim focused,” Mull said. “It empowers victims and bystanders to speak up and speak out without fear of retribution or fear of their jobs.”

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