BISMARCK — In an unprecedented move, the North Dakota House of Representatives has expelled embattled Rep. Luke Simons over recently surfaced sexual harassment allegations.
The lower chamber voted 69-25 on Thursday, March 4, to remove Simons from office after a heated three-hour debate. The expulsion resolution required a two-thirds majority to pass.
Simons is the first lawmaker to be expelled from the Legislature since North Dakota became a state, according to legislative officials. The next steps are unclear, but it’s likely the local GOP district committee in Dickinson will appoint Simons’ successor. GOP District 36 Chairman John Enderle did not respond to requests for comment.
A series of sexual harassment accusations against Simons surfaced last week, with multiple female colleagues and staffers saying the Dickinson Republican repeatedly made inappropriate comments and exhibited “creepy” behavior toward them over the last three years.
Simons denies all wrongdoing and has said his accusers are politically motivated to bring him down because of his conservative views.
Rep. Emily O’Brien, who has accused Simons of repeatedly harassing her in the past, delivered emotional testimony to her colleagues Thursday, in which she said Simons’ shameful behavior has no place in the House chamber.
“One time or 100 times, our tolerance is zero,” O’Brien said.
The Grand Forks Republican said she moved her desk across the House chamber due to Simons’ inappropriate and misogynistic commentary on her appearance and personal life. O'Brien added that she stopped wearing a particular dress to the Legislature because Simons made sexually suggestive comments about it.
A week after calling for Simons’ resignation, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said lawmakers needed to uphold the ethical standing of the institution and reject Simons’ poor behavior. He added that Simons' conduct would result in a firing if he were in a different line of work.
Simons said Thursday he is owed a public hearing where he can counter the allegations and tell the "full story." Simons said he shouldn't be assumed guilty of unproven claims that "twisted my words," and his expulsion would set a weak precedent for booting a legislator.
Others who defended Simons barely addressed the allegations against him but contended the House should fully investigate the harassment claims and give the lawmaker due process.
Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said lawmakers had to set aside their personal feelings about Simons and vote against the expulsion effort because the claims against him haven’t been investigated and are unproven.
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said expulsion is an extreme measure in any Legislature, and lawmakers in other states have only been removed after full investigations. He called for greater vetting of the accusations against Simons before significant action is taken.
Simons, a barber and rancher, was first elected in 2016 and won reelection in 2020, with nearly 39% of the vote in a five-way race. A member of the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus, Simons has proposed legislation this session that would loosen gun regulations and tighten personal privacy rights.
A pattern in the accusations
Simons’ alleged misconduct toward staffers and colleagues dates back to 2017, but details didn’t emerge publicly until after an altercation in the Capitol cafeteria made waves in Bismarck last month.
Reps. Karla Rose Hanson and LaurieBeth Hager, both Fargo Democrats, asked Simons to put on a mask while he waited for food. Simons answered with an expletive-laden response that leaders have called inappropriate and unprofessional. Simons has since apologized for the crude language, but not for refusing to wear a mask.
Following the outburst, Legislative Council Director John Bjornson released a 14-page document detailing numerous harassment allegations against Simons.
One anonymous staffer alleged Simons gave her an unsolicited shoulder rub at a committee meeting. Another said Simons told her she could “lick and sniff” a stain on a paper he slid across her desk.
Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said she was present when Simons told an intern he wanted to put his hands in her hair. Simons said he was talking about the intern's hair and hair products from his perspective as a barber. Pyle told the intern she had endured uncomfortable conversations with Simons over the years, according to the documents.
Pyle solemnly relayed Thursday the alleged harassment she witnessed, noting to members that “our daughters and granddaughters are watching” and the House needed to show them that sexual harassment is intolerable.
Bjornson released a new allegation Wednesday in which a female staffer said Simons referred to her as “that pretty one” and insulted her husband to his face.
None of the allegations were filed as formal complaints through the harassment reporting process, so legislative leaders said they couldn't independently discipline the Dickinson Republican.
But after the series of accusations was made public, it amounts to a pattern of poor behavior that necessitated extreme action like expulsion, Pollert said.
Some lawmakers are now wondering if changes could be made to the harassment policy to restore faith in the system and allow leaders to punish members for bad behavior before the problem snowballs.
Watch a replay of today's session from the North Dakota State Capitol House Chamber by following this link. The meeting adjourned at 5 p.m., after a House vote.
How North Dakota House members voted
Voting for Simons’ expulsion were Reps. Adams, B. Anderson, D. Anderson, P. Anderson, Beltz, Boe, Bosch, Boschee, Brandenburg, Buffalo, Cory, Damschen, Delzer, Devlin, Dobervich, Doctor, Guggisberg, Hager, Hagert, Hanson, Hatlestad, Headland, Heinert, Howe, Ista, D. Johnson, M. Johnson, Kading, Karls, Keiser, Kempenich, Kiefert, Klemin, Kreidt, Lefor, Longmuir, Louser, Martinson, Meier, Mitskog, Mock, Monson, Nathe, Nehring, J. Nelson, M. Nelson, O’Brien, Ostlie, Pollert, Porter, Pyle, Richter, Roers Jones, Sanford, Satrom, Schauer, Schmidt, Schneider, Schobinger, Schreiber-Beck, Stemen, Strinden, Thomas, Trottier, Vetter, Vigesaa, Weisz, Westlind and Zubke.
Voting against Simons’ expulsion were Reps. Becker, Bellew, Christensen, Ertelt, Fegley, Fisher, Hoverson, Jones, Kasper, B. Koppelman, K. Koppelman, Magrum, Marschall, Owens, Paulson, Paur, Rohr, D. Ruby, M. Ruby, Schatz, Simons, Skroch, Steiner, Toman and Tveit.