A Nebraska senator who name-checked a colleague while reading about rape is under investigation

A Republican Nebraska lawmaker who stirred a firestorm of controversy by repeatedly name-checking a fellow senator while reading a graphic account of rape from a best-selling memoir on the floor of the Legislature is now under investigation for sexual harassment.

The investigation into state Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings by the Legislature's Executive Board was announced Wednesday by Sen. Ray Aguilar, a fellow Republican and chairman of the board. Aguilar said he filed the harassment complaint himself after witnessing Halloran's remarks on the floor Monday night.

“This formal investigation will be thorough and by the book,” Aguilar read from a statement on the floor. "I can assure members of this body, legislative staff and all Nebraskans that any and all allegations of workplace harassment will be properly investigated and addressed as provided in the Executive Board policy. ”

“More than anything, it is important that all members of the Legislature and legislative staff feel safe in the workplace," Aguilar said.

A panel of three lawmakers will be named to oversee the investigation and will hire an outside investigator to look into Halloran’s actions. A report will be made public within 45 days, Aguilar said.

Halloran said legislative rules on harassment investigations prevent him from commenting on the probe, “other than to note I’ll defend myself.”

During a debate on a bill targeting obscenity in libraries, Halloran read a graphic excerpt from the memoir “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, which recounts Sebold’s experience of sexual violence when she was 18, and invoked the name “Sen. Cavanaugh” several times, appearing to reference Democratic state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a female colleague.

Halloran later said he was invoking the name of Cavanaugh's brother, Democratic Sen. John Cavanaugh, because he wanted to ensure that John Cavanaugh was paying attention to his argument against allowing students to have access to Sebold's memoir. Halloran apologized the next day for invoking the Cavanaugh name, but stood by his reading of the graphic passage on the floor.

Machaela Cavanaugh, who was visibly shaken following Halloran's reading, has said she doubts Halloran's claim that she was not the target, because Halloran had approached her a couple of hours before the reading, as she was eating dinner with another lawmaker, and relayed the same passage from Sebold's memoir.

“You don't know anything about anyone else's life, and I can tell you that women in this body have been subject to sexual violence,” Machaela Cavanaugh responded immediately after Halloran's reading on the floor. “I didn't know you were capable of such cruelty!”

Halloran’s reading drew an immediate backlash from both Democrats and Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. One of the most vocal has been Republican Sen. Julie Slama, who has called on Halloran to resign. Slama, who also serves on the body's Executive Board, has publicly detailed her own encounters with sexual harassment and assault, including her account of being forcibly groped by former Republican candidate for Nebraska governor Charles Herbster at a fundraiser when she was 22. She has also received rape and death threats while serving in the Legislature.

And these aren't the only scandals involving men targeting women in the Nebraska Legislature in recent years.

In 2017, state Sen. Bill Kitner — a married Republican who had already been fined in 2015 for having cybersex with a woman using his state-issued laptop — resigned after retweeting a comment that implied participants at a women’s march were too unattractive to be sexually assaulted.

Then in 2022, Republican state Sen. Mike Groene abruptly stepped down and abandoned his campaign to be a University of Nebraska Regent after admitting that he took workplace photos of a female subordinate — including what she said were close-ups of body parts while she was clothed — without her knowledge or consent. After several women lawmakers railed against the handling of the complaint against Groene, the Legislature last year updated its policy on workplace harassment.