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Attorneys Of Alleged Assault Victim Of Ex-Lawmaker: Changes Required At Idaho Capitol To Protect Workers

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Courtesy Annie Hightower and Erika Birch
Attorneys Annie Hightower (left) and Erika Birch (right)

In the wake of disturbing testimony from a 19-year-old female volunteer staffer at the Idaho Capitol, telling a House Ethics Committee that she was sexually assaulted by a sitting lawmaker, two of the young woman’s attorneys say they have heard from people across the U.S. with what they call “an outpouring of support.”

“At least several every day, there are people reaching out,” said Erika Birch, partner with Boise- and Utah-based Strindberg, Scholnick, Birch, Hallam, Harstad and Thorne. “They reach out, just to say, ‘We really admire the courage that your client has exhibited,’ and, ‘We hope she’s doing well.’”

Birch and Annie Hightower, Director of Law and Policy for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the case, the need for a safe place for victims to have a voice, and a need for change at the Idaho Capitol.

“We were able to assist in this case and help a young lady who showed a tremendous amount of courage in a very difficult process.”
Annie Hightower

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The 2021 edition of the Idaho Legislature will be remembered for many things. But the darkest chapter concerns the alleged attack of a teenage woman by an Idaho lawmaker; and how that incident turned into a very public hearing. Joining us this morning are two attorneys who advocate for the victim. Erika Birch is a partner at Strindberg and Scholnick in Boise. She has represented clients in some of the region's highest-profile employment and labor legal issues. And Annie Hightower is another of Idaho’s best attorneys. She has served as Title IX coordinator at Boise State; and is Director of Law and Policy for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Good morning to you both.

ERIKA BIRCH: Good morning, George.

ANNIE HIGHTOWER: Good morning.

PRENTICE: I want to ask a couple of quick questions about this particular case: No. 1: Is this still an open investigation?

BIRCH: Yes, as far as we know, the criminal investigation is still open.

PRENTICE: Do you have a sense of community support for your client?

HIGHTOWER: I think that we are seeing a great amount of community support for our client. I know that both of us have received an outpouring of support, via people getting a hold of us through email, our friends reaching out to us, family members reaching out to us. I personally have received communications from folks all around the country. And in fact, many survivors have reached out to me to pass along their congratulations, their pride, and their well wishes for our client.

PRENTICE: Erika, can I assume you've received some communications?

BIRCH: Absolutely. At least several every day, there are people reaching out…some that I know and some that I don't know. They reach out, just to say, “We really admire the courage that your client has exhibited,” and “We hope she's doing well.” And,“Thank you for helping her through this process.” So, it's been pretty incredible.

PRENTICE: Well, my main reason in asking you to give us a couple of minutes this morning is to talk about victims and their courage to step forward; and needing a safe place for their voice to be heard.

HIGHTOWER: I think, if anything, what this situation last week and the whole process highlighted was why it is so difficult for people who experienced sexual violence to report it from the start. Our client's name was outed by several members of the Idaho Legislature. Throughout the process, there were people attacking her online, pushing out her personal information. And for survivors of sexual violence, privacy is the absolute number one thing they need to move forward through processes. The biggest fear folks have is that their very personal, intimate information will reach the public and that is, in fact, what happened in this case. So, privacy throughout processes and creating processes that can protect privacy is probably the foremost need for any person to be able to feel comfortable coming forward and reporting.

PRENTICE: Erika Birch, what changes might you advocate for, to protect workers in state and local government in general, and at the Idaho Capitol in particular?

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James Dawson

BIRCH: Fortunately, there have been other people focused on this work, so Idaho doesn't have to start from scratch. There are some fairly well-known best practices. And and I'll just sort of tick through those. No. 1 is: lawmakers should not be investigating these issues of sexual assault or sexual harassment themselves. They don't have the experience to do those investigations professionally. And they're in positions of power which could influence the investigation and the decision making. So, hiring independent investigators, whether that's on an ad-hoc basis or having an internal group that just focuses on those kinds of investigations is definitely needed. Just as Annie was just speaking to the privacy and confidentiality for accusers is key. And that also means that the person accused of harassment should not be able to confront their accuser until there's a designated time in the process. Third on the list is… and this is a huge one in this particular case… the ethics committee and the legislature as a whole have to ensure that there is no retaliation. And that means that if there is retaliation, the punishment must be quick and it must be severe. Another item on the list is that every lawmaker and employee who is at a supervisor level should serve as a mandatory reporter. That means if they hear or see or learn of sexual harassment, they are required to inform the Ethics Committee about it. Training is another key that needs to be done. It should be done in smaller groups and it should be interactive. And then the hearing process itself should have very clear due process protections in place.

PRENTICE: Finally, I'll ask you both… and Annie Hightower, maybe you can answer first: I would be remiss if I didn't ask why you took this case in particular, and why you do what you do.

HIGHTOWER: I'll start with why I do what I do and then move to why we took this case in particular. About one out of four women will experience rape or attempted rape within their lifetime. And I happen to be one of those four women. So, I experienced sexual violence when I was in high school, and I did not report it for all the reasons people fear not and don't report. And when I got finished with law school, I was introduced to the organization that I work with now, and saw both the impact that sexual violence has on people's lives and how providing civil legal services to survivors can help them move to a place of safety and then to where they can get to a healing process. We took this case, No. 1, because we do provide free legal services for people who experience sexual violence, who are aged 11 to 24 throughout the State of Idaho. And we had a young lady contact us who was clearly in some need of assistance because she was involved in a very, very complicated case, at which point I was introduced to my client. And I am so happy that…I'm grateful, I should say, that we were able to assist in this case and help a young lady who showed a tremendous amount of courage in a very difficult process.

PRENTICE: Erika?

BIRCH: Thanks, George. I've been fortunate enough to spend my career representing employees and other people who have been harmed in workplaces’, and my best day at work will be the day when I have no more cases, because that's what it's all about, is trying to get employers to do the right thing here so that I don't have to have clients walk through my front door. That probably won't happen in my career or in the firm's lifetime. But that's the goal here.

PRENTICE: They are Erika Birch and Annie Hightower; and I've known their work professionally for a number of years, and they are indeed among the very best at what they do. Thank you for what you do, and thank you for giving us some time this morning.

BIRCH: Thank you.

HIGHTOWER: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

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