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June 17, 2020

CEO Calls for the Immediate Establishment of Ethical Norms in Sexual Misconduct Allegations

By Sarah Hunt

The recent history of Trump, Kavanaugh, Bill Clinton, and Biden shows that the political weaponization of sexual misconduct allegations is now a fixture in our political process, further entrenching political polarization. The health of our democracy urgently requires the establishment of a formal body to create a victim-centric set of ethical norms and an independent evaluation process to assess sexual assault claims against powerful political leaders.

Unscrupulous actors have shown a cold-blooded willingness to exploit the collective pain of women to advance partisan agendas, widening the political divide and threatening the foundations of our democracy. We must hold political parties, campaigns, and the media to a higher standard. That begins with an oversight commission to establish voluntary ethical norms and provide victims with a neutral safe-harbor.

Ms. Tara Reade and Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford brought allegations against men pursuing the most powerful positions in government. Both see their stories employed by partisans, not for justice, but to win elections. Providing women with a voice is important. The ability of voters to assess the character of our leaders is vital. Protecting women and our democracy from the machinations of ruthless political operatives is critical.

When forced to choose between believing women or believing party leaders, the American people are too often forced to act as judge and jury in the court of public opinion. We can mitigate this problem with the formation of an independent body acting as gatekeeper for allegations of sexual misconduct by contenders for American government leadership such as President, Vice President, Senior Cabinet Officials, Supreme Court Justice, US Senators.

Victims will not trust a body run by Congress or the White House if their perpetrator wields authoritative power in the legislative or executive branch. Therefore the judiciary seems a logical choice to head such a commission or a fully independent entity should be established. Members of the commission might include retired judges, medical professionals, law enforcement investigators, and academic experts. Administrative fees paid by federal political committees can fund operating expenses, sparing taxpayer expense.

How would such an entity function? One possible scenario might be that a victim could bring allegations to the commission. The commission will handle in-take, including initial collection of testimony and evidence, assign victims an ombudsman, and provide assistance in obtaining appropriate legal counsel. Theoretically, a victim who first files a report with the commission would have more credibility than one who does not.

The commission will support journalists, lawyers, and political professionals that handle sexual misconduct allegations against high ranking public officials by maintaining a code of ethical conduct. The entity may provide training, voluntary certifications, and advice for members of these professional communities.

Regardless of its organizational make up, a new code is necessary. The current ethical standards governing the adjudication of such allegations leave much to be desired. From victim reporting to the response of political leaders such as Presidential contenders or Supreme Court Justice, current ‘standards’ do little to productively advance victim’s rights or guard against potentially motivated mischief. A super PAC’s constitutional right to run ads exploiting alleged victims of sexual misconduct for political purposes, for example, does not make it moral to run those ads. A voluntary professional ethics standard has the ability to create enforceable social norms of decorum without offending our constitution.

Current criminal and civil justice processes are likewise insufficient. Most victims do not report sexual assault to the authorities when it happens. Human resources processes are fraught with fear of retaliation. Libel and defamation laws are unrealistic remedies for high profile political figures, because our first amendment correctly provides extensive protection to political speech.

The ad hoc, celebrity-lawyer driven public relations scheme dominating today is a threat to both democracy and victims. Misinformation campaigns, the 24/7 news cycle, polarization, and foreign election interference renders public discussion of these allegations contentiously partisan. The result is not a search for the truth nor the swift justice under the law.  Instead, the result is often the distruction of lives, careers, and the fraying of our democratic framework long before any impartial investigation can realistically take place.

These systemic failures blend with the winner-takes-all nature of our political system, the perverse incentives faced by today’s media outlets, and the salacious nature of sex scandals, to create an admixture toxic to the republic. Absent a change in approach to public evaluation of these cases, we leave victims at the mercy of click-bait media, bitterly entrenched partisanship, and lawyers of the ilk of the disgraced Michael Avanetti. Both victims of assault and American democracy have too much at stake for citizens to allow the status quo to continue. #MeToo stories, while providing a platform for action, must no longer be used for partisan electioneering. Given the present unwillingness of our political class to observe this human decency, oversight and new standards are required -- immediately.

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