Cleveland area legislators allege pervasive culture of racial profiling, harassment at the Ohio Statehouse

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-- Three Cleveland area state representatives are coming forward together for the first time with allegations of racial profiling, discrimination and harassment at the Ohio Statehouse dating back to 2015.

"Might call it the old boy network to a degree; there is a pervasive culture of racism and sexism," said Janine Boyd representing Ohio House District 9. "...Sometimes it just blows your mind."

According to documents released by the Ohio State Highway Patrol Tuesday, two patrolman were disciplined this month for how they handled a formal report made by State Representative Emilia Sykes of Akron in 2016. Sykes describes being unnecessarily stopped and questioned by security about her business at the statehouse and Riffe building, where the offices of many legislators are located.

"He said, 'You don't look like a legislator,' then he corrected himself and said, 'You look too young to be a legislator,'" said State Rep. Sykes. "At that point I was stunned; I was in disbelief. When we were given a security memo it said have your badge, have your pin; it didn't say anything about having to look like a legislator."

State Rep. Sykes, the minority whip, is serving her second term and says it appears some members of security do not recognize who belongs in the building.

"My white male colleagues have not ever experienced that; in fact, one told me the other day he never wears his badge," said State Rep. Sykes. "He never shows his badge but he has never been questioned or stopped by security."

She filed a formal complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission this spring after a series of similar instances occurred over the course of two years including one in May.

Other legislators have come forward with similar accusations of what they describe as racial profiling. State Representative Stephanie Howse says she was followed by security when she attempted to walk to her office without an ID.

"A law enforcement sergeant-at-arms came to my office with my name on the door and asked me for my identification," said State Rep. Howse, representing district 11. "I just want people to let that sit in and you always go back --  if I'm getting treated like this as an elected official what is happening to everyday Ohioans that are coming to the people's house?"

An investigation launched by the Ohio State Highway Patrol did not reveal unprofessional conduct or bias by highway patrol troopers or security personnel during the interactions that formed the basis of the investigation regarding State Rep. Sykes' complaint. However, documents released show discipline was given to two troopers just weeks ago who failed to properly handle her grievance.

According to an investigative summary provided by state patrol, all sworn officers and professional staff will see enhanced diversity training beginning in 2019. The process for patrol leadership began in 2017.

However, other legislators of color say they have not experienced any problems with state patrol, instead their issue is with the "sexist behavior" of other lawmakers.

State Rep. Boyd recalls an incident that went unreported during her freshman year in 2015 following a budget meeting with a senior legislator no longer serving at the statehouse.

"He said, 'Well, I got your better budget right here,' and he raised his hand as if to strike us," said the representative,  illustrating the movement with a backhand motion.

After confronting the legislator about his intent, State Rep. Boyd explained, "He said, 'Oh I was just kidding. I'm a joker; I'm a kidder. I would never put my hands on a woman. In fact, I only beat my wife on Saturdays,' and then he laughed and walked away."

The representative says she did not report the incident because she thought she would not be believed or taken seriously.

While FOX 8 was at the statehouse conducting interviews, a camera rolled while attending session on the House floor. During that time State Representative George Lang of House District 52 made a comment about H.B. 123 regarding payday loans and businesses closing in "vulnerable communities."

"What are these store fronts going to become? They're going to become massage parlors for Asians- Asian massage parlors, strip clubs, tattoo parlors. They could become a business laundering money while selling crack cocaine out of the back," said State Representative Lang of Ohio House District 52.

State Rep. Howse says the public comment illustrates the overarching problem of conduct and inappropriate racial undertones that go largely unchallenged at the statehouse.

FOX 8 reached out to State Representative Lang who issued the following statement about his remarks:

“As clarification, my remarks on June 7th were made during a House floor debate regarding House Bill 123, payday lending reform legislation, which is an issue that can and has certainly incited some heated debate over the years. I expressed my concern with shutting down businesses in vulnerable communities that I believe provide value for the citizens that live there as well as the communities in which they operate. In my attempt to do so, I made mention of the unintended consequences that could arise from shutting down Ohio-based businesses, including the arrival of questionable store fronts that might hurt at-risk communities. These questionable store fronts include businesses that sometimes are involved in human trafficking; something I am strongly against and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to confront. I believe in many cases, payday lenders are the last line of defense for vulnerable communities and Ohio’s working poor.”

The Speaker of the Ohio House, State Representative Ryan Smith declined an interview, instead issuing a statement to Fox 8:

“Since being elected Speaker in June, I have continued to reiterate the importance of ensuring that all complaints regarding harassment and discrimination be taken extremely seriously by House Administrative Staff and the House Legal Team. The House Administrative Handbook outlines guidelines for the facilitation of complaints and allegations of harassment when they are brought forward, and I encourage staff and members to do so if they feel they have been harassed or discriminated against.

“By encouraging proper staff training and open lines of communication, we are continuously looking at ways to update and improve upon existing harassment and discrimination policies. It is my priority to make certain that the Ohio House of Representatives is a safe and positive work environment for all members and staff.”

State Representative Sykes is awaiting the Ohio Civil Rights Commission's mediation deadline this week to address her racial profiling and discrimination concerns. She says if all parties are not willing to meet she will rely on the outcome of the commission's independent investigation to determine a final resolution.

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