Committee approves bill to address Guard harassment

CHEYENNE — A legislative committee plans to sponsor three bills dedicated to improving transparency and accountability in the Wyoming military during this year’s budget session.

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee and Wyoming Guard officials convened Tuesday to draft the legislation. The substance of the bills included requiring an annual report by the Military Department, criminal record dissemination and fingerprinting, as well as procedures for reporting discrimination and harassment grievances.

Attention was publicly brought to these issues by whistleblowers and veterans of the Guard last fall, many of whom reported a toxic environment, instances of intimidation, enablers of abuse and a lack of answerability from high-ranking officials. Although Adjutant General Greg Porter and state military leadership cannot confirm these allegations, efforts are being made in partnership with legislators to address concerns, they said.

“I’m just going to echo everybody’s thanks in terms of working through some pretty difficult issues,” Porter told committee members after approving the bills, “and trying to support the Military Department and, more importantly, the people that are within the Military Department, to make sure that that they’re taken care of, and that we continue to do the right thing.”

Marilyn Burden, a member of the Wyoming Air National Guard for 17 years, said this moment of acknowledgement is bittersweet. She served as an equal opportunity specialist and alternate sexual response coordinator, witnessing what she considered forms of discrimination, retaliation, harassment and willing ignorance.

She went before the committee in November, asking for many of the reforms highlighted in the legislation approved Tuesday. However, she said because corrective actions were not taken until now, it proves how broken the military process was.

“My heart’s kind of sad that this stuff had to be exposed in the public eye in order for change to happen,” she said. “And I’m disappointed that years and years of leadership did not respond differently when people in helping agencies came forward with concerns.”

She has spent more than a decade practicing patience, raising her voice amid avoidance, and locking arms with fellow veterans and civilians to gain this kind of ground, she said. This determination may pay off if the three bills approved by the committee Tuesday are passed by the full Wyoming Legislature during the budget session, which begins Feb. 14.

But Burden said she can even wait for the 2023 general session, if necessary.

“That’s just the nature of the government,” she said.

In February, the first piece of legislation approved by Transportation Committee members will go to the Senate. The bill focuses on the requirements for a Military Department annual report.

“No later than Oct. 31 of each year, the adjutant general shall report to the governor and the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee on sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault matters,” it states.

Military officials would have to include department demographics, such as the gender, and the number of state and federal employees, civilian and military employees, full- and part-time Air and Army National Guard members.

There would be factual information on all incidents, reports, formal and informal complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault incidents in great detail. The committee would gain insight on the position levels and status of individuals reported; incident dates, details and actions allowed under privacy laws; and complaints to the Inspector General and Congress.

The recommendation to include complaints to the Inspector General and Congress was one Burden said she made, which Rep. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne, introduced in an amendment to the committee. Burden’s own complaint to the Air Force Inspector General was dismissed in 2018, and she wanted legislators to have a fuller picture when it came to different forms of reporting.

“It was very empowering,” she said in regard to Styvar taking her perspective into account. “Because for the 10 years I advised commanders, I felt like they ignored me.”

Additionally, changes in options for employees and members to report incidents, comparative results from previous assessments, and the policies and procedures implemented in response to sexual assault, harassment and discrimination would be presented.

The second bill approved was influenced in part by the Uniform Military Justice Code, Article 138. Burden used it as an example in her November testimony as a way to hold commanding officers accountable. It was developed to be applicable to the Wyoming military.

“Any member of the Wyoming National Guard who believes himself to have been wrong by a commanding officer, and who, upon application to that commanding officer, is refused redress, may complain to any superior commissioned officer,” it states. “The superior commissioned officer shall forward the complaint to the adjutant general.”

Afterward, the adjutant general would examine the complaint, take proper measures and send the governor a true statement of the proceedings. This is to ensure any report is moved up the ladder properly and secures a resolution.

The Wyoming adjutant general will also have the powers and duties to enter into agreements, exchange information and assist the Department of Workforce Services in counseling, mediating, investigating and determining the outcome of claims by employees of the Military Department. Workforce Services will have these same powers in order to work with the Guard.

If passed, the rules necessary to implement this legislation would have to be configured no later than July 1, and nearly $201,000 would be appropriated for services, salaries, benefits and training to make this possible. Allowing the state agency to have a handle on complaints would give Guard members and employees a different avenue to report their grievances if they did not feel comfortable internally, which Burden said was significant.

Workforce Standards and Compliance Administrator Jason Wolfe told committee members he was confident his department could handle this, and would take on any Equal Employment Opportunity Commission training necessary.

“This bill does fit within our wheelhouse as it relates to investigation of the discrimination claims that might come out of the Military Department,” he said. “This is something that our staff is familiar with and trained in.”

The final piece of legislation focused on criminal record dissemination, and was introduced previously in 2018, according to Wyoming Military Department Joint Advocate General and lawyer Chris Smith. He said this was an important step in authorizing the release of military member criminal history record information and requiring fingerprinting.

Smith explained the bill was not passed because he said there was an impression in House discussion that the information would be used to hurt Guard members or employees. Smith said this was never the case, and the department previously worked with prosecuting attorneys, as well as law enforcement agencies, in accessing the details, but this would authorize the Military Department directly.

“It helps our Wyoming law enforcement agencies be authorized to cooperate with us without feeling like we’re somehow going around the law,” he said.

Although the bill was not as important in terms of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination, it still allows for continued transparency. And if all three of the bills sponsored by the Transportation Committee are passed into law, each will go into effect July 1.

Committee co-Chairman Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he was proud of the work the committee did to address the concerns through the interim, but moving forward with the legislation will be a difficult task. With the session focusing on the 2023-24 biennium budget and redistricting, he is still unsure which bills will make it to the floor for introduction.

“We’re going to have our hands full,” he said.