Complaints up sharply as Georgia’s new sex harassment policy takes hold

Audits, independent investigations holding some harassers accountable. Kemp pledges more resources for inspector general’s office.
After facing a third sexual harassment complaint, Georgia State Patrol Trooper Chris Niehus was fired this year, in large part because of new standards under Gov. Brian Kemp’s sexual harassment policy. Niehus is seen here checking traffic speeds in 2014. JIM BLAYLOCK / THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE

After facing a third sexual harassment complaint, Georgia State Patrol Trooper Chris Niehus was fired this year, in large part because of new standards under Gov. Brian Kemp’s sexual harassment policy. Niehus is seen here checking traffic speeds in 2014. JIM BLAYLOCK / THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE

Georgia State Patrol Trooper Chris Niehus already had two sexual harassment complaints against him when a third was filed earlier this year.

In the first case, Niehus’ reported sexual propositions and unwanted groping had been ruled as a case of “mutual” flirting. In the second, a supervisor urged the harassment victim, a dispatcher, not to file a complaint against the “family man.”

Patrol superiors always had his back. But in the third case, when he harassed a rookie police officer in another department, Niehus lost his cover.

The complaint was vetted under a new sexual harassment policy, and the resulting independent investigation ended his employment.

In the past, and as it had done in the first two cases, the Department of Public Safety would have decided the best way to proceed, because every state agency handled such cases its own way and set its own standards for proof and for punishment.

As a result, employees in many different state agencies often received the lightest of discipline — such as talking-to's, re-training or written reprimands — a statewide review of more than 200 cases by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year found.

That changed when Gov. Brian Kemp, acting on the AJC’s findings, made the state Inspector General’s office the clearinghouse for sexual harassment complaints, with instructions to audit those cases and offer guidance. In the Niehus case, the inspector general referred the investigation to a team of independent investigators from the Department of Early Care and Learning.

Deputy Inspector General Jenna Wiese (from left), State Inspector General Deborah Wallace and General Counsel Bethany Whetzel have been swamped with an influx of sexual harassment claims in the wake of Gov. Brian Kemp’s new policy. Over the past nine months, the state has recorded 142 complaints within agencies throughout the state. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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For state Inspector General Deborah Wallace, monitoring such cases has become a massive, never-ending job for her small department. Since the new policy took effect in March, the state has seen a landslide of new complaints, with Wallace's office logging 142 cases, an average of about one every other day.

While there has been some progress, Wallace said consistency in approach and outcome continues to be a problem.

The AJC reviewed more than a dozen new cases filed this year and found several with questionable outcomes. In one, a state employee reported to have masturbated in a government building’s bathroom received a one-day suspension. In another, a harassment victim said she had to lobby a human resources director to have her case independently audited per the new guidelines.

Wallace told the AJC the state may need to pour more resources into investigating complaints if the goal is to change the culture of state government. Gov. Kemp's office has already added three new positions to the Inspector General's office to help with the caseload and plans to add at least two more staffers next year.

To get “really good at this,” Wallace said, the state needs a task force of four to eight investigators — “a dedicated, well-trained, competent sexual harassment unit that was led by a competent person.”

“It doesn’t have to be me,” Wallace added, although she said her office has the standing to make it happen. Wallace said such a task force, armed with a consistent set of standards and knowledge of the law and state policy, could make even greater strides toward changing departmental cultures.

Dawn Bennett-Alexander, a professor of employment law with the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, said the system needs more investigative teeth to work properly.

“I don’t know why they didn’t assign a couple of people or whatever to just say, ‘OK, you all be investigators. Whoever needs help with an investigation, you go and do it,’” she said.

Kemp’s office said future budget decisions will ultimately depend on the results of a comprehensive audit of caseloads and training that the inspector general expects to begin after the reforms have been in place for 12 months.

"As a day one priority for my administration," the governor said in a written statement to the AJC, "we will continue to work with the Office of Inspector General — providing the necessary resources, manpower, and support — to carry out the mission outlined in my executive order.

“Every executive branch employee should feel safe and free from any form of sexual harassment in the workplace, and we will continue to uphold — and enforce — that standard going forward,” Kemp said.

Process works in Chatham County

While the reforms give no enforcement authority to the Inspector General, Wallace said her office is constantly training human resources officials and fielding calls from agencies trying to find their way.

That was the case for the Georgia Public Defender Council when a group of lawyers and staff in the Chatham County Public Defender’s Office made their concerns known about chief public defender Robert Persse. According to the 1,600-page file, Persse made comments about the attractiveness of female staff, and male attorneys said he would talk to them about women’s breast sizes. During a dinner outing, they said he rubbed a female attorney’s ear while her colleagues watched. He reportedly gave another an “awkward bear hug that lasted too long.”

Prior to the new reforms, a supervisory panel spent months investigating the complaints before returning a report concluding that the allegations against Savannah’s chief public defender were “credible.” Once the reforms kicked in, they brought the case to Wallace’s office for help.

“We got the facts in that one piecemeal, through multiple telephone calls that were exhausting,” Wallace said. She said she knew the case called for an independent investigation. The council hired an outside law firm to conduct it.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has added three new staffers, and plans to add two more, to help the Inspector General’s office keep tabs on statewide sexual harassment complaints. Currently on the job are (from left) General Counsel Bethany Whetzel, State Inspector General Deborah Wallace and Deputy Inspector General Jenna Wiese. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Within three months, Persse, who denied he had harassed anyone, had submitted his resignation in the face of a highly damaging report from the investigation.

In an email to the AJC, Persse called the investigation “bulls**t.”

That wasn’t the view of an original member of the supervising panel who said in an internal email that he was glad the investigation ended with Persse’s resignation.

Cheryl Karounos, a spokeswoman for the public defender council, described the investigation as “thorough” and said the Inspector General’s office was a useful resource. “They were easy to work with and it was timely. I wouldn’t say it hindered. I’d say it helped,” she said.

‘This matter is over’

In other cases, questionable outcomes persist, revealing lingering resistance to Kemp’s zero-tolerance policy by senior employees who should know it the best.

The state's commissioner for the Department of Veterans Service kept a spokesman on staff despite a sustained allegation that he masturbated in a bathroom sink in a government building in March.

The alleged incident happened after hours in the East Tower of the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd building, across from the State Capitol. Veterans Service shares the 9th floor with the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, and a senior staffer for that office said he was working late.

While in the handicap stall, the staffer reported, someone else entered the bathroom and stood at one of the sinks. He said he sat frozen for about five minutes during the man’s lewd act, feeling “trapped, disgusted and violated.”

The staffer filed a complaint with Capitol Police the next day, identifying the state employee he believed to be responsible: Veterans Service spokesman Brian Zeringue who, according to the complaint file, was known to linger on the 9th floor long past closing time, often walking the halls in a T-shirt.

When asked by his boss if he committed a lewd act in a government building’s bathroom, Department of Veterans Service spokesman Brian Zeringue reportedly answered, “I do not recall,” according to state documents. Zeringue told the AJC he did no such thing in the men’s room. SPECIAL

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Capitol Police took no action, but after the student achievement staffer sat through sexual harassment training, he approached Inspector General Wallace and told her what happened. The inspector general alerted Commissioner Mike Roby’s office.

According to accounts in the case file, Roby and three of his managers sat Zeringue down, showed him the police report, and asked him if it happened. “I do not recall,” Zeringue answered, according to Roby and another of his managers quoted in the final report.

That was enough for Commissioner Roby.

“Brian, as far as this agency is concerned, this matter is over,” he is quoted telling his spokesman. In an interview with AJC, Roby said he took no further action because he considered it a case of “he said / she said.”

Even after an independent investigation launched by the inspector general ruled it was “more likely than not” that the PIO did what was alleged, Roby only suspended him for a day without pay, citing their 29-year professional relationship as fellow Army soldiers and working together at Veterans Service.

“He’s my public information director,” Roby told the AJC. “He travels with me whenever we do events, and he does a fine job.”

Contacted by phone, Zeringue declined to be interviewed, but said: “I have never openly masturbated in the sink anywhere on the face of this earth.”

He also called the investigation into his conduct “haphazard” and done “without any supporting evidence to back up the allegations.”

Discouraged from reporting?

In another case reviewed by the AJC, a harassment victim said she had to lobby her agency’s HR director to follow the new state policy with respect to her complaint.

Jennifer Witherington, a senior dean at Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro, said the new policy emboldened her and other female colleagues to come forward about an instructor, who they said had been making female faculty members uncomfortable with incessant compliments and up-and-down stares in the hallway.

The worst came when the instructor, 73-year-old funeral services teacher Jack Norvell, emailed two female colleagues a news article with a photo of skinless corpses posed in sexual positions, saying later he wanted their academic opinion about the ethical implications of the Body Worlds exhibit. In the context of his other behavior, the women said they found the email disgusting.

Their optimism turned sour, however, when Human Resources Director Stephen Miller tried to dissuade them from making harassment claims, suggesting that they instead confront the instructor about how he was making them feel, according to the case file.

“I felt that Steve was trying very hard to discourage me from following the procedure,” Witherington wrote in a memo included in the case file, “and he wanted to handle it himself so that it could just go away.”

Jack Norvell, a funeral services instructor at Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro, had to move offices this year after three female colleagues accused him of sexual harassment. According to one of the women, the school’s human resources director tried to dissuade them from making claims. SPECIAL

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Witherington told the AJC she lobbied Miller for two days, telling him state policy required him to forward the complaint to his superiors. The school system's sexual harassment policy requires HR directors to report allegations up the chain immediately.

When he finally did, she said in her complaint, he warned one of the alleged victims that the school system’s headquarters in Atlanta would likely send a male investigator to conduct the interviews.

The school system’s head office assigned an investigator to examine the complaint. Norvell was verbally counseled about his behavior and moved to another building following an investigation.

After their experiences with the process, she doesn’t think women at the school will feel so comfortable speaking up now.

“The whole thing just was not handled right,” Witherington said. “Had the procedure been followed, I think things would have turned out differently.”

Miller did not return several calls and emails from the AJC seeking comment. The newspaper contacted the Technical College System of Georgia’s main office, where a spokesman disputed Witherington’s account. The spokesman said a review of Miller’s handling of the case found he followed school system policy and was only trying to get a clear understanding before making a report.

Norvell told the AJC he never made inappropriate comments to the women he works with, and with poor eyesight, he couldn’t have ogled them. But he said he was raised to pay compliments. He said the dean’s complaint against him was unprofessional.

“I’m 73 years old, and if someone looks nice, I was raised to tell them they look nice,” Norvell said. “That’s what my generation does. Frankly — on these lingering looks — if someone is down the hall, I can’t see who they are anyway.”

Our reporting

In stories in 2018, reporters Jennifer PeeblesJohnny Edwards and Chris Joyner revealed how Georgia state government often failed employees who reported sexual harassment. The state had a haphazard system that spared high-ranking employees from significant sanctions, while leaving victims at risk of retaliation. Because the state had no consistent system for reporting or investigating complaints, it couldn't even say how many employees had reported being victimized. The stories prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to make the state Inspector General's office the clearinghouse for complaints from across the state, to try to ensure that employees who claimed they were being harassed were treated fairly. Today's story explains how the reforms are working.