State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, is fighting a sexual harassment complaint brought by a longtime statehouse lobbyist. Shafer has said the accusations are false. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia Senate hires attorney to probe sex harassment complaint

Georgia senators have picked a veteran Atlanta employment lawyer who once did an internal investigation for Atlanta Public Schools into test cheating to look into sexual harassment allegations filed against state Sen. David Shafer.

The senators chose Penn Payne, a frequent donor to Democratic Party candidates and causes and a longtime mediator and arbitrator, to investigate the complaint filed by a lobbyist against Shafer, a Duluth Republican.

Shafer, a leading candidate for lieutenant governor this year, has strongly denied the allegations.

The lobbyist is a longtime Republican who worked with Shafer at the state GOP and on campaigns in the mid-1990s.

In her online profile, Payne lists “sexual and racial harassment” issues as one of her areas of practice.

The AJC reported on March 9 that the lobbyist filed a complaint alleging that Shafer retaliated against her and harassed her after helping her get a bill passed in 2011. The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Shafer called it a “false complaint” aimed at damaging him politically, and he called the lobbyist “a 15-minute, attention-seeking wannabe trying to settle an old score.”

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

Punishments for violations of the policy include counseling, termination or other discipline. Legislators could be expelled, fined or censured by a two-thirds vote of the House or Senate, according to the Georgia Constitution.

In the APS case, after state officials flagged irregularities in student test scores, following reporting by the AJC, the school district hired Payne to investigate.

She produced a report that said no evidence existed to support the cheating allegations. But the AJC later reported that early drafts of her report had found the opposite; Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall ordered those drafts shredded and made sure more favorable findings ended up in the final draft.

Payne cooperated with special investigators appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue. In the end, 11 APS teachers and administrators were convicted in 2015 of racketeering in the scandal over cheating on standardized tests.

She has contributed about $20,000 in the past 12 years to Democratic candidates, the state party, judicial races and causes such as Planned Parenthood’s political affairs committee and Vote Choice, according to campaign disclosures filed with the state ethics commission.

In the most recent gubernatorial elections, she donated to Democrats Cathy Cox in 2006, Roy Barnes in 2010, Jason Carter in 2014 and Stacey Abrams in this year’s race.

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