Georgia ethics panel dismisses harassment complaint against Shafer

State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM
State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee dismissed a sexual harassment complaint a lobbyist filed against state Sen. David Shafer, with the announcement coming a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained an investigative report raising questions about the allegations.

"Based on the findings of fact reported by the independent counsel, the committee found that there is a lack of credible evidence to support the allegations in the complaint," said a letter sent Friday to Shafer from the committee's chairman, state Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge. "Further, the evidence contradicted the essential elements of the complaint.

“The investigation failed to find credible evidence of sexual harassment or a violation of the Senate Rules. Thus, pursuant to the Senate Rules, the committee found that there was not reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred.”

Shafer and his lawyer, Jennifer Little, told reporters Friday that they felt the committee had “exonerated” the Republican lawmaker from Duluth of allegations that he sexually harassed a female lobbyist for several years.

“As I have said from the beginning, these allegations are false,” Shafer said. “As much as I am happy that my name has been cleared, the sad reality is this has taken away from the real suffering of actual victims of sexual harassment.”

The lobbyist’s attorney, Bruce Harvey, declined to comment Friday, saying he hasn’t seen the investigative report.

Shafer said the complaint was politically motivated since it was filed the day after he qualified to run for lieutenant governor. The lobbyist said she filed the complaint when she did because new legislative rules made the filing possible.

Shafer called for the Senate Ethics Commission to make the investigative report public after senators met for four hours Thursday in closed-door, unpublicized meetings. The AJC obtained the report independently.

The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The woman worked with Shafer at the Georgia Republican Party in the 1990s and later, as a lobbyist, sought his help to pass legislation. She accused Shafer of retaliating against her when she turned back his advances.

The 58-page report, marked "confidential," includes interviews with at least four lawmakers and about a half-dozen other officials.

It concluded there was no evidence that Shafer retaliated toward the lobbyist by killing her legislation and found that no witness who was interviewed heard Shafer make “sexually inappropriate remarks” to the accuser.

Still, several of the people interviewed also said they didn't discount the lobbyist's accusations. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who told investigators he believed the lobbyist's complaint.

“I had never known her to be dishonest. I have never known her to be dramatic or, you know, exaggerate in any way,” he said, according to the report. He added that it had a “ring of truthfulness to it.”

On Friday, Shafer responded, “I am disappointed by his comments.” Shafer and Cowsert have been rivals for Senate leadership posts in the past. Shafer held a top leadership post in the Senate before giving up the job last year to concentrate on his lieutenant governor’s race.

Sexual harassment cases have roiled statehouses across the country, but Georgia's system is set up so complaints are handled behind closed doors.

The Georgia General Assembly exempted itself from the Georgia Open Records Act, so any filings are secret, although the AJC obtained a copy of the complaint.

The complaint alleged that harassment involving Shafer had been going on for years. After she turned down his advances, the lobbyist said, she was convinced Shafer would hurt her clients. He eventually stopped talking to her, she said.

Shafer said the lobbyist has a history of making things up, and that he dated her in the 1990s, something she denied. The investigator sided with Shafer on that issue, citing statements from several staffers and friends who worked with them at the time.

Shafer said he had a policy of not meeting alone with the lobbyist, and he produced affidavits from three people attesting to that policy.

Senate leaders last month hired Penn Payne, a frequent donor to Democratic Party candidates and causes who once did an internal investigation into test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools, to investigate the complaint.

Payne produced a report for APS that said no evidence existed to support the cheating allegations. In the end, 11 APS teachers and administrators were convicted in 2015 of racketeering in the scandal over cheating on standardized tests.

Because of big increases in the number of major sexual harassment accusations against celebrities and politicians last fall, Georgia lawmakers began reviewing their policies for dealing with such cases.

Sexual harassment complaints involving legislators and employees can be reported to the House Ethics Committee, the Senate Administrative Affairs Committee, the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House or the legislative fiscal officer, according to the Georgia General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.

Then complaints are forwarded to the Senate or House ethics committees for investigation by either a subcommittee or an outside third party.

Little, Shafer’s lawyer, told reporters Friday that it was sad that the first case to test the new rules was “completely fabricated.”

“The first person to utilize these new rules for good was in fact utilizing them for evil,” she said. “Make no mistake, politics has hit another low today because this complaint was nothing more than a pure smear campaign.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

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