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Agency newly empowered to probe sexual harassment faces budget ax

Deputy Inspector General Jenna Wiese (from left), State Inspector General Deborah Wallace, and General Counsel Bethany Whetzel at the Inspector General’s Office are the primary personnel reviewing sexual harassment reports. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Deputy Inspector General Jenna Wiese (from left), State Inspector General Deborah Wallace, and General Counsel Bethany Whetzel at the Inspector General’s Office are the primary personnel reviewing sexual harassment reports. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The State Inspector General is charged with rooting out waste and fraud in state government, so Inspector General Deborah Wallace’s office in the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building is noticeably frugal.

Much of the furniture in the small suite is surplus from other agencies, and the conference table takes up half of Wallace’s personal office. So, when the call came to trim 14% out of her $1 million budget, the only place to cut was staff.

“It’s painful,” Wallace said. “I wish we had excess that we could trim, but it’s not like that.”

In a May 7 letter to legislative leaders, Wallace proposed cutting a lawyer, an auditor and two investigator positions which were about to be filled before COVID-19 disrupted operations. All the positions are tied to investigating sexual harassment claims across state government.

Wallace’s office has tallied 174 sexual harassment complaints from across state agencies since March 2019 when Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order instructed the Inspector General to audit complaints and train investigators across the executive branch.

Kemp's reforms were prompted by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found state agencies varied wildly in their approach to handling sexual harassment complaints, often blaming and punishing victims while their harassers got off scot-free.

Wallace wrote the she is “deeply concerned that a reduction to our FY21 amended budget will be crippling to our office’s progress in weeding out perpetrators of fraud and sexual harassment in state government.”

On May 1, state agencies were told to cut $3.5 billion out of the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1. Kemp and legislative leaders instructed every agency to cut 14% of their spending, no exceptions.

Wallace said she and the rest of her staff will take 18 furlough days. She also is reducing operating expenses for the entire office to just $23,366 — 77% of which is earmarked to pay for state-required cyber-crime insurance. It’s still not enough.

“There is nowhere to take it except people,” she said.

Atlanta attorney Chris Anulewicz said cutting the Inspector General’s Office is counter productive for a state looking to save money.

“They are working with what is already a shoestring budget,” he said. “They are more than paying for themselves. To decrease the budget for them hurts everybody in the state of Georgia, because the money they save us, they won’t be able to save anymore.”

Anulewicz worked with the office on an investigation that led to the return of millions to the state treasury.

The Department of Revenue's Office of Special Investigations had seized millions in assets from convenience stores for allegedly violating gambling laws regarding video game machines. The seized money was spent on cars, guns, exercise equipment and promotional items for the unit. Wallace's office had been looking into the unit when the Department of Revenue announced it would return $2.1 million in seized assets to the state treasury.

“That would not have been done but for their efforts,” said Anulewicz, who represented some of the convenience stores.

The state budget will be finalized when the General Assembly returns for its suspended session next month.

Our reporting

AJC reporters Johnny Edwards, Chris Joyner and Jennifer Peebles spent months in 2018 sifting through hundreds of complaints filed in state agencies to reveal a haphazard system of reporting and investigating sexual harassment complaints. The investigation prompted an overhaul of the system by incoming Gov. Brian Kemp, who tasked the State Inspector General with auditing complaints across the executive branch. Today's story reports how statewide budget cuts could impact the Inspector General's new mission as well as its traditional job of rooting out fraud and waste in state government.