Iowa State Sen Nate Boulton: ethics charges predating my election should not apply

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Nate Boulton
Iowa State Senator Nate Boulton at March 2018 Women's March in Des Moines. Image: Phil Roeder (CC2.0)

Democratic Iowa State Senator Nate Boulton yesterday responded to a complaint made against him to the Senate Ethics Committee. It had been filed by a Des Moines attorney who claims he grabbed her buttocks in a bar in 2015.

He argues the event did not happen (as far as he can remember), but even if it did the incident predates his election to the Senate and is therefore beyond the scope of the committee.

Nate Boulton dropped out of Gov race, but not Senate

In May 2018, less than three weeks after announcing his bid for the Democratic nomination for Iowa governor, three women came forward with allegations that Nate Boulton had behaved inappropriately with them.

Initially reported in the Des Moines Register, local attorney Sharon Wegner claimed that Boulton grabbed her buttocks in a bar in 2015. Two of Boulton’s law school classmates said that on several occasions “he rubbed his clothed crotch against them, pressing his erect penis into their thighs.”

Boulton suspended his campaign for governor the following day. Iowa Democratic Senate Leader Janet Petersen called on him to resign from the state legislature as well.

“Sexual harassment is unacceptable whether it occurs in a social or professional setting,” she said in a statement. “What we have learned in the last 24 hours makes it clear to me that Senator Boulton should also resign his position in the Iowa Senate. If he chooses not to do so, I will support a full, independent investigation into allegations against him.”

But Boulton did not resign from the Iowa Senate. He did publicly admit to a previous problem with drinking – simultaneously claiming that he had already stopped drinking altogether in November 2017.

Meanwhile, Wegner proceeded to file an official complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee.

What happens in 2015 stays in 2015?

Nate Boulton’s case will be an important test for the Iowa Senate’s relatively new ethics rules, adopted in 2017.

Already there is confusion over one key line in the provisions: “A complaint will be considered to be timely filed if it is filed within three years of the occurrence of the alleged violation of the ethics code.” Wegner’s allegation took place within the three year time-limit, but before Boulton was sworn in as a senator in January 2017.

Boulton contends he should not be held accountable for violating Senate ethics rules before he became a Senator.

In the response to Wegner’s filing his attorney wrote that it was “like requiring a worker to follow regulations in an employee handbook — years before he is even hired…It is axiomatic that members of an organization are not bound by its rules and regulations prior to the time they become members.”

While Boulton maintains that he has no memory of the incident Wegner describes, the response concludes, “he accepts that in a state of extreme intoxication, it is at least possible he may have misread situations and boundaries, stifled his ordinary inhibitions, and ultimately mistreated someone he genuinely respected. He would not be the only human who has ever done this.”

Nate Boulton left off committees for now

The Senate Ethics committee is now considering whether or not to dismiss Wegner’s claim based on Boulton’s response. Even if the technical argument he has put forward prevails, he is still paying a political price.

Democratic Senate Leader Janet Petersen, who previously called on Boulton to resign, has refused to name him to any committees until the ethics committee’s work concludes.

“I will defer making any committee assignments for Senator Boulton until the Senate Ethics Committee completes its ongoing investigation into the complaint filed against him,” Petersen said in a statement. This parallels similar moves made by Republican leaders in the Colorado State Senate to isolate Randy Baumgardner, also accused of repeatedly touching women inappropriately.

If the committee finds that Wegner’s complaint has merit, things could get much trickier for Nate Boulton. He could be admonished, issued a cease-and-desist letter, recommended for censorship or a reprimand from the Senate, or become the subject of a special investigation.

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