Senators have given up cell phones, the Legislature will no longer give cash advances before travel, and legislative employees are undergoing sexual harassment training, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone announced during a press conference Wednesday.
Malone said the new procurement policies and employee manuals are nearly complete.
Malone was joined by Legislative Executive Director Iver Stridiron and several career legislative staff, who detailed what they and their divisions were doing within the Legislature. The broad-reaching procedural changes and basket of new policies and manuals are in response to serious issues raised in a 2011 federal audit of the Legislature, Malone said. (See related links below.)
Malone, who took over administrative duties at the Legislature in January, said significant changes were required.
"The audit uncovered major deficiencies and, while it focused primarily on the 28th Legislature, it was clear to me that new standard operating procedures needed to be put in place so nothing like this could reoccur," Malone said.
"My priority these first three months has been to develop new policies that increase accountability and limit opportunities for abuse,” he said, adding, “In fact, I believe that many of these new policies should be codified in our law."
The Senate president continued, "People may be surprised to learn that senators are no longer assigned personal vehicles and that we now pay for our own cell phone service and phones. We have also revamped our procurement, per diem and travel policies – basing them on federal guidelines.”
“We have implemented true austerity measures and I challenge all agencies of this government to do the same," Malone said.
During the press conference, Malone said eliminating cell phones for senators and staff would save about $60,000 per year, or nearly $120,000 over the course of the 30th Legislature. In a statement released later in the day, Malone said it was "more than $50,000 annually."
The audit found numerous questionable cash advances made to senators prior to traveling, some of which were given for trips that were later canceled, and some of which were never properly documented.
Stridiron said that, going forward, there will be no cash advances. Senators will have to submit a travel plan and, if they have enough money remaining in their allotments, they will be able to purchase plane tickets and accommodations in advance.
But senators will be expected to sign up for conferences other travel needs early enough to get the lowest fares – or they will have to make up the difference themselves, Stridiron said.
Stridiron is putting in place written procurement policies, which he said were not written down in the past, leading to a lack of consistency and a tendency not to require competitive bidding. He said the 2011 audit found that millions of dollars in contracts had been awarded without competitive bidding in the past, possibly causing the Legislature to pay more than necessary.
Stridiron also said the staff is currently undergoing sexual harassment training, and everyone is clear that "there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”
"If you are guilty of sexual harassment, you are toast. The only punishment is dismissal," he said.
The Legislature and individual legislators and staffers have been sued for sexual harassment at least twice, with the Legislature settling a suit against former Sen. Usie Richards for an undisclosed sum. A former employee is currently suing the Legislature, alleging the body did not do enough to stop one aggressively offensive employee despite several complaints. (See related links below)
Malone said the past lawsuits could have been avoided with simple, clear-cut policies and training, and the new policies will "help prevent that going forward."
"Once you have been trained and given the policy, it says to me if you decide to go ahead and harass someone, that is on you. The institution will no longer be exposed," Malone said.
In the spirit of transparency, the Legislature will start posting its quarterly financial statements on its website (www.legvi.org), Legislative Business Director Ava Penn said.
"Each senator has their annual allotments … those expenditures will be shared on our website and right now we are still finalizing the reports for publication," Penn said.
So far spending by individual senators, and the Legislature as a whole, is well within budget, Penn said.
Malone said he would request in the coming weeks that the Inspector General’s Office review the Legislature’s new procedures.
"I welcome the input from auditors as we have worked very hard to get to this point," Malone said. "I am tremendously proud of what has been accomplished in the just over 100 days since we were sworn in to office."