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@NCCapitol

More harassment accusations leveled against NC state senator

Posted June 3, 2020 8:24 p.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2020 10:26 a.m. EDT

This is the N.C. Legislative Building as seen on Feb. 2, 2015 at 6 p.m.

A North Carolina state senator said Wednesday that a Senate colleague suggested she perform oral sex on him as "practice" before visiting her ex-husband in jail.

The allegation against state Sen. Toby Fitch, D-Wilson, adds to accusations state Sen. Erica Smith laid out last week. Smith accused Fitch and other senators of abusive behavior, targeting a system at the General Assembly that she said tried to sweep her concerns under the rug.

Senate leaders from both sides of the aisle have denied that, saying they took her allegations seriously. Those allegations were largely set aside two weeks ago by the Senate Ethics Committee, which dismissed her complaint.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Roy Cooper, in response to WRAL News questions, said Thursday that Smith's claims "deserve a serious and thorough investigation."

The state Democratic Party's leadership wouldn't address the veracity of Smith's allegations, but said in a statement that her legislative effort to change the reporting process on General Assembly harassment claims should move forward.

Smith, D-Northampton, suggested that her persistence in the matter contributed to her lack of establishment support in this year's U.S. Senate race. She lost a lop-sided Democratic primary to Cal Cunningham, now the nominee set to face Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

"I lost because I fought this," Smith said during a video conference with supporters and reporters Wednesday. "Had I not fought this, I likely would have won my race."

Smith initially laid blame on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but said later that she couldn't say for sure why the DSCC didn't support her.

"It was reported to the DSCC that I am a maverick," the senator said. "They would have a hard time controlling me."

A spokeswoman for the DSCC said late Wednesday that the organization wasn't aware of Smith's complaints.

State Senate Democratic leaders have also pushed back on Smith's insinuations. Fred Aikens, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue's chief of staff, put out a four-page response Wednesday to allegations Smith made in a formal complaint she filed in April as part of a process that goes back more than a year.

Aikens denied that Fitch sexually harassed Smith during a 2018 car ride that Aikens, Smith, Fitch and Blue all shared to Elizabeth City. Aikens also denied allegations that Smith was discriminated against when it came to office assignments and Senate floor seating.

Aikens also said one witness Smith named in her complaint was too far away to overhear comments she was alleged to witness and that he spoke to another who told him she didn't recall those comments.

"Senator Smith has given the impression that her complaints were not taken seriously, not discussed, attempts were not made to address them and that Leader Blue did not take appropriate action," Aikens said in a statement emailed to reporters. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Smith acknowledged Wednesday that some of the witnesses she has pointed to "are recanting and changing statements."

"I can only imagine the pressure that they are feeling," she said. "My heart goes out to them."

Fitch did not return a message Wednesday evening seeking comment, but last week he denied making inappropriate remarks.

Smith said during the video call that, in May 2018, Fitch asked why she wasn't visiting her ex-husband, who is incarcerated. She said Fitch told her "you know you still love him" and that she should be like Hillary Clinton.

"Hillary stood by her man," Smith quoted Fitch as saying, a reference to Clinton staying with President Bill Clinton after it became clear he had an affair with a White House intern.

"I said 'I'm no Hillary and he's no Bill,'" Smith said Wednesday.

That's when, according to Smith, Fitch said there's "nothing wrong with getting your **** sucked ... maybe you're not doing it right."

Smith said Fitch then told her, "I'm here for you to practice on."

After that encounter, Smith said, Fitch "started turning up the volume" on his harassment.

Smith said she may pursue criminal charges or a civil case against those she has accused, including state Sen. Paul Lowe, who got into a verbal altercation with Smith last year that grew so intense a colleague stepped in front of Lowe.

Lowe exited that meeting in anger, then grabbed and threw a reporter's cell phone. In a statement, Lowe has acknowledged "vigorous debates" with Smith, but said he never threatened her "in any way."

Police investigated last year's encounter, and an officer concluded Smith had reason to fear Lowe would assault her. No charges were filed. Smith said she preferred to work through the General Assembly's reporting process, and that it let her down.

She has filed multiple bills to overhaul that process, but they have not gotten traction at the legislature.

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