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Niezgodski sexual harassment case divides Democrats

Thursday marked one week since an IndyStar columnist reported that Democratic State Senator David Niezgodski paid an employee to settle her sexual harassment complaint.

The matter has divided some local Democratic elected officials and candidates.

Despite the gravity of the woman’s allegations that Niezgodski sexually harassed her when she worked at his plumbing business, the senator has had a relatively smooth week. He still has the enthusiastic support of South Bend Mayor James Mueller. County party leaders have deferred to their state counterparts for any kind of action, and they’ve declined to take any.

State Representative Maureen Bauer continues to support Niezgodski and appear in campaign ads with him.

The woman filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. Public records the commission has released from her complaint include audio of voicemails Niezgodski left her as he was begging her not to quit.

"During those times that are so miniscule, we better damn well be able to say that you love someone," a voice that sounds like Niezgodski says. "I love you. I love you in all the right ways."

Niezgodski has refused to speak publicly about the case. Instead, he has released a written statement to WVPE, saying, "Seven years ago, my wife and I were trying to keep a valued employee with whom we had a personal friendship at our family business and I should have handled matters in a better way. In retrospect, I regret how I acted seven years ago and take full responsibility for causing any pain or discomfort.”

In declining interview requests, Niezgodski has cited a non-disclosure agreement that he and the employee reached, in which he paid her $8,000 to settle her complaint.

The complaint is dated 2017, but the IndyStar reports that the woman’s father alerted county party leaders about the alleged harassment in 2019.

One Democratic candidate is speaking out against Niezgodski. Jenn Shabazz, running for a St. Joseph County Council seat, has a long history of advocating for women’s issues. Noting the alleged harassment happened in 2017, when the MeToo movement went viral, Shabazz says sexual harassment remains a widespread problem women face.

She says Niezgodski has yet to apologize for his actions, and he needs to.

"If he chooses not to apologize, I believe it's up to our community leaders," she said. "They need to show leadership. We need to demand this apology but we also need to have a further discussion on how we create safe environments, safe spaces for everybody, within the party, within our community."

Shabazz says she doesn’t consider Niezgodski’s statement an apology.

"I'm looking for a public apology, not a statement that's made to the Tribune or in one article," Shabazz said. "We're looking to have an honest conversation. He needs to allow people to ask any questions that they may have. If he feels that he does not need to resign then he needs to have an open conversation. This is a systemic issue that we are continuously dealing with."

St. Joseph County Treasurer Tim Swager, who is challenging Niezgodski in the Democratic primary for the state senate seat, also doesn’t think he has apologized.

"I don't think he's made any meaningful attempts to repair the damage he's caused," Swager said. "I think he should apologize directly to the victim, the community, and resign from office immediately."

Mueller declined our interview request, but in a written statement, said Niezgodski is “one of the most effective Democratic senators we have in Indiana and should be re-elected to continue fighting downstate for us, women’s rights and organized labor.”

Such responses haven't set well with Swager.

"I am a little disappointed that more community leaders haven't come forward and expressed zero tolerance for this type of egregious behavior," Swager said. "You have the victim confirming the account, the father coming forward as a witness, a lot of material evidence, and yet the senator still refuses to waive the nondisclosure agreement. It's very damning."

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).