Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has called on the state Senate’s Republican and Democratic caucuses to reach an agreement on new sexual harassment rules regarding senators and staff members. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Duncan calls on Georgia Senate leaders to revise sex harassment rules

Georgia’s lieutenant governor is urging the state Senate to alter controversial guidelines approved earlier this year that limit the time someone can file sexual harassment allegations against lawmakers and staff.

Rules approved by the majority Republican chamber on the first day of the legislative session require people who believe they’ve been harassed by a senator or Senate staffer to bring their allegations forward within two years of the alleged incident. Previously there had been no time limit.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan urged leaders of the Senate’s Republican and Democratic caucuses to come to an agreement on a new policy.

The Senate’s 21 Democrats and Buford Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman voted against the policy, saying the rules would discourage those who’ve been harassed from coming forward.

Duncan, who was not presiding over the Senate until the second day of the session, said he was not aware of the Senate’s proposed new rules before they were approved.

“It became apparent that this was a good opportunity to step into the role of being a leader,” Duncan said, and try to get an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson.

Duncan’s campaign for lieutenant governor last year likely benefited from the policy not having a time limit.

Late in the last session, a veteran lobbyist filed a complaint against then-state Sen. David Shafer, who was considered the front-runner in the race for lieutenant governor.

The lobbyist said Shafer retaliated against her and harassed her after helping her get a bill passed in 2011, and the case was the talk of the final few days of the 2018 session.

A panel of Senate leaders meeting in secret ended up dismissing the complaint, but the case hurt Shafer’s candidacy. He narrowly lost the Republican primary runoff to Duncan in July.

The new time limit applies to all complaints about the conduct of senators, not just sexual harassment cases. The rule also says anyone who files a complaint and makes it public could see it automatically dismissed and face sanctions, including possibly fines. The new rules say no cases would be investigated while a senator was running for re-election or other office.

Republican senators, other than Unterman, voted to block the policy from being amended on the first day of the session. Now, it will require two-thirds consensus in the Senate to make any changes to the rules.

Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, said, “The intent from the beginning was to create a set of rules that everyone is comfortable with.”

But Henson, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said that while he was encouraged that the lieutenant governor was facilitating a conversation to make changes, he was frustrated by the way things happened.

Senators received the proposed rules at about noon on the day before the session began.

“We were very disappointed (Republican leadership) didn’t bring it to us until the afternoon the day before session and we didn’t have a chance to have any input on it at all,” Henson said. “Our input was not asked for, we did not feel it was welcome.”

Still, both Dugan and Henson are hopeful the senators will soon reach an agreement to alter the policy.

Duncan said he views continued discussions on the policy as an opportunity for the senators to “get something right.” As lieutenant governor, he doesn’t have a vote on the rules of the chamber.

“Nothing comes through the building perfect on the first try,” he said. “This is an opportunity to really take a collaborative effort that, in all honesty, is nonpartisan and allows us to improve … the sexual harassment policies in a way that I think the entire Senate as a whole will be proud of.”

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