LINCOLN — The Legislature’s top legislative leaders opted Wednesday to formally reprimand a Nebraska senator after he inserted colleagues’ names into the reading of an explicit rape scene two weeks ago.

The nine-member Executive Board, which acts as a human resources arm of the state’s legislative branch, voted unanimously to release results of a formal investigation into Hastings State Sen. Steve Halloran’s March 18 actions, when he read a committee hearing transcript regarding “Lucky,” a 1999 memoir by Alice Sebold that recounts Sebold’s experience of sexual violence at age 18. Halloran repeatedly interjected other senators’ names into the reading.

The Executive Board voted 8-1 to formally reprimand Halloran in an internal letter rather than advance Legislative Resolution 335 from State Sen. Macheala Cavanaugh of Omaha. The resolution called for the Legislature to formally censure Halloran for his comments.

Because the Legislature has six remaining days in the session, legislative rules complicate Cavanaugh’s ability to pull the resolution from committee.

The eight senators, including Speaker John Arch of La Vista, “formally deplore” Halloran’s “unacceptable conduct” and said his remarks were “not only unbecoming of a member of the Nebraska Legislature and contrary to all senatorial traditions of decorum” but also clearly violated the Legislature’s Workplace Harassment Policy.

“The Nebraska Legislature should seek to foster a future work environment that respects the dignity of all members of the Legislature and restores the confidence of the people of the state in the Legislature,” the senators continued.

State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, the board vice chair, was the lone vote against the motion.

Last week, he and eight other senators called for LR 335 to be dismissed or ignored prior to a Thursday hearing on LR 335.

Halloran, who is prohibited from running for reelection due to term limits, told reporters Wednesday he was being “raked over the coals” on the legislative floor, but he said a censure would “chill” speech. He said his intention was to point out “Lucky” is in school libraries, which has been “twisted and turned.”

“I’m a grown adult, I can take a reprimand. I wouldn’t have said it that way if I had to do it over again,” Halloran said.

“It was a harsh reading about a harsh, obscene subject,” he added. “Where’s the outrage about the subject matter?”

State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, board chair, called for the investigation into Halloran’s actions one day after Halloran’s comments. The Executive Board appointed a three-member panel of State Sens. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, Myron Dorn of Adams and Teresa Ibach of Sumner.

The panel consulted the law firm Rembolt Ludtke of Lincoln, which in a Tuesday report found that Halloran injected other senators’ names six times when reading the hearing transcript — “Senators Cavanaugh” (once), “Senator Dungan” (once) and “Senator Cavanaugh” (four times).

Machaela Cavanaugh and her brother John both serve in the Legislature.

The law firm states that while Halloran’s comments are protected free speech, they “do give rise to a violation of the Legislature’s Workplace Harassment Policy” on three grounds:

- Verbal abuse of a sexual nature.
- Graphic verbal commentaries about a person’s body, clothing or sexual activity.
- Sexually oriented jokes, stories or discussion.

“It is the opinion of this outside investigative team that Senator Halloran’s conduct and comments were reprehensible and should not be tolerated because they may lead to or foster a hostile work environment,” the report reads.

Aguilar noted that the report and reprimand do not reference Halloran’s comments on March 26 when, during debate on a bill to require online age verification for adult websites, he made jokes that Machaela Cavanaugh would know about porn because she watches it.

Arch and Halloran have confirmed the comments were made.

The law firm notes that elected officials fall outside federal employment law as “employees,” so Halloran’s actions did not rise to a hostile work environment harassment if the affected party is an elected official.

Halloran has stated he was reading from the hearing transcript and inserted the names to get the attention of Sens. John Cavanaugh of Omaha and George Dungan of Lincoln. The report found Halloran’s assertion that he was referring to John Cavanaugh “implausible” and that he was “not merely reading the hearing testimony or novel verbatim.”

“Rather, Senator Halloran intentionally chose to insert the name of a state senator on multiple occasions in multiple occasions in sentences describing graphic and horrific instances of sexual assault,” the report states.

“Senator Halloran’s conduct and comments were inappropriate, unnecessary and could be interpreted as unfairly targeting a fellow member of the Legislature,” the report continues.

A formal reprimand is now part of Halloran’s legacy, which is sad for him, Slama said, but it’s “far more upsetting” that no legislative leader asked after the incident whether Machaela Cavanaugh was OK.

“If he was being an adult, he would pick up his toys and go home,” Slama said of Halloran. “If he had any respect for this institution or his colleagues, he would resign.”

Machaela Cavanaugh said Wednesday that she filed LR 335 for a public way to address Halloran’s comments and that a general censure motion would require Speaker John Arch of La Vista to schedule the motion.

She filed a motion for censure, anyway, but said, “I know it won’t be taken up.”

“You have failed me,” she said of her colleagues. “You failed all victims.”

DeBoer, who led previous efforts to update the Legislature’s Workplace Harassment Policy, suggested expanding the timeline to object to a senator’s speech and said she’ll bring rules changes next year because they “don’t work as currently written — that particular one, anyway.”

“The truth is we have to do something,” DeBoer said. “This has happened multiple times in the six years I’ve been here.”

She also suggested hiring counsel to help with the Legislature’s ethics concerns, which a previous ethics committee also recommended.

“If it’s happening to senators on the floor, I suspect that in the quiet places of this Legislature it’s happening to young staff members as well,” DeBoer said.

John Cavanaugh said Wednesday’s actions do not end the conversation because only the Executive Board has condemned Halloran’s comments, not the full Legislature. For members who haven’t spoken out, he said, it will “be a stain on your records.”

“This will reflect on you forever,” he added. “This is not the appropriate way to deal with bullies.”

Slama said some of her colleagues called on her to recuse herself on LR 335, Machaela Cavanaugh’s censure, because Slama had signed onto it. However, Slama said, an objective review shows Halloran’s actions were unacceptable, and she’s “not asking anybody to go after a friend.”

“If you see something like that happen, you go to bat for that person,” Slama said, noting she has often been at odds and not gotten along with Cavanaugh.

Slama and Machaela Cavanaugh have also connected Halloran’s actions to those of former State Sen. Ernie Chambers in 2020 when he said Slama got her initial legislative appointment because of “favors of a fleshy nature” and suggested a hypothetical where he enslaved and raped her. Cavanaugh has said the Legislature failed Slama, who was 24 at the time.

“Nebraskans deserve so much more from the most public workplace than this really, clearly unprofessional conduct,” Slama said.

Rembolt Ludtke said the Legislature could take action against Halloran, such as a reprimand or censure. It said expulsion would interfere with Halloran’s “right and ability to govern.”

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said on the floor Wednesday that the Legislature failed Machaela Cavanaugh and that “everyone has a duty to uphold decorum on the floor,” but that under the Legislature’s rules, it must be done immediately.

Because Halloran’s remarks occurred during debate, the law firm states the senator is shielded from legal liability.

State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, the only woman on the Executive Board, cosponsored Cavanaugh’s censure resolution and said the board’s Wednesday letter was a “disservice” to every rape victim who poured their hearts out in her inbox and recounted how Halloran’s comments were renewing mental anguish or symptoms of PTSD.

Slama said she can relate as she has not been able to sleep well in recent weeks and that related nightmares are coming back.

“These aren’t just, ‘Oh, unpleasant dreams,’” Slama said. “I am literally frozen when I wake up, and I cannot do anything. I cannot move.”

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