Secretary of Iowa Senate denies making threat over report on inadequate COVID measures at State Capitol Building

Hand sanitizer stations like this one are scattered throughout the State Capitol Building in Des Moines, but there are no face covering requirements in the building. Visitors have their temperature checked via a wrist thermometer by security officers near the public entrance. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Charlie Smithson, the secretary of the Iowa Senate, complained to the administrator in charge of the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Agency (IOSHA) about a “hazard alert letter” by agency inspectors criticizing how the Republican leaders who appointed Smithson failed to address COVID-19 concerns in the Iowa State Capitol Building, and suggested the letter might cause the administrator to lose his job, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Smithson told the AP’s Ryan J. Foley he wasn’t threatening Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts during their meeting on April 2, or attempting to stop the letter, the publication of which on April 20 let the public know IOSHA concluded a lack of basic COVID-19 precautions at the Capitol created a hazardous working environment for workers. According to Smithson, what sounded like a threat to others at the meeting was actually just a poor choice of words on his part.

“I expressed frustration in a stupid way,” Smithson said to Foley.

According to notes from the April 2 meeting obtained by the AP through the Open Records Act, Smithson, the top administrative official in the Iowa Senate, said after Roberts told him the letter would be sent, “We’ll take that up at his next confirmation,” and “this might come up during Rod Roberts’ reappointment.”

Roberts’ current term expires in 2023. If he is reappointed, he will need to be confirmed by the Senate. In 2019, the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Roberts for a four-year term.

Smithson claimed he was frustrated that IOSHA was treating the House and the Senate as equally responsible for the situation in the Capitol. In a letter to the inspector before the meeting, “Smithson argued that the Senate’s COVID-19 protocols offered ‘remarkable protections’ and asked them not to find any violations, noting that the chamber allowed people to work remotely and held many hearings virtually,” Foley reported.

None of that addressed the problems inspectors recorded in their letter.

In the hazard alert letter addressed to Speaker of the House Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Iowa OSHA cited four points of concern.

• Social distancing between individuals is not always practiced and not enforced.
• Temperature checks and health screens are not being performed on all persons entering the Capitol Building.
• Employees are not required to report COVID-19 positive test results to leadership.
• No determination of work-relatedness for COVID-19 positive cases reported.

“IOSHA recommends that you review your safety and health practices at your workplace to ensure consistency with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and compliance with applicable OSHA standard,” the letter said.

Before the 2021 session of the Legislature began in January, Grassley and Whitver issued mitigation rules for COVID-19. The regulations the Republican leaders created applied to the public, not lawmakers or staff.

Members of the public were required to have their temperature checked and answer health screening questions when entering the building. Legislators and staff were exempt.

There was no mask mandate in the Capitol, despite requests from Democratic lawmakers, groups representing building workers and public health experts such as the Iowa Public Health Association.

During the meeting with Roberts, “Smithson reacted with frustration, saying [the hazard alert letter] ‘doesn’t tell me a (expletive) thing,’ inspectors’ notes say,” Foley wrote. After the meeting ended with Roberts not changing his mind, Smithson sent Roberts a letter thanking him for the meeting and saying “I know that this has not been an easy matter to investigate and I am not necessarily an easy person to deal with when I defend a client.”

Smithson has had a long career in state government, serving as chief clerk of the Iowa House before moving to the Senate, as well as a turn as executive director for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. He has generally kept a low profile. But comments by Smithson did attract attention shortly after he was appointed secretary of the Senate in 2017.

In March of that year, as questions were being raised about sexual harassment in the Iowa Legislature, Smithson spoke to members of a political group focused on women’s issues, telling them that female staffers dressing too provocatively were causing problems for lawmakers.

According to a recording of his comments published by Bleeding Heartland in November 2017, after Smithson had been appointed to conducted an inquiry into whether members of the Senate engaged in sexual harassment,

A lot of the clerks you get are younger, and unfortunately, sometimes the females wear some stuff that kind of drew some attention. And so part of my job is to go to the member and say, ‘Hey, you might want to tell your clerk to wear something different. Some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit, right? OK? You know what I mean?’

When members of the group asked Smithson what he meant by that, he explained, “Usually what it’s been, the skirt’s kind of short, or the top’s too short. And some of these clerks are, you know, I can say this, that they look really nice. They’re younger. But for them, it’s a different environment than what we’re used to.”

After those remarks were published, Smithson told the Des Moines Register, he had chosen his words poorly, and he had actually just been repeating what two women staffers had told him, and was not speaking about his own beliefs.

In July 2017, a jury awarded Kirsten Anderson, the former communications director for the Senate Republican caucus, $2.2 million, finding that the Iowa Senate Republican caucus had created a toxic work environment, filled with sexual harassment and racist comments, and had fired Anderson in retaliation for filing a complaint about working under those conditions.

The following January, the Iowa Senate hired a consulting firm to provide training intended to prevent future sexual harassment, and Iowa Legislature as a whole hired an HR director to oversee harassment complaints.

Three months later, a clerk for a Republican member of the Iowa Senate was fired after a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him. His termination was announced by Smithson.

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