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Georgia Senate votes to amend controversial sexual harassment policy

Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan enters the house chamber for the joint session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan enters the house chamber for the joint session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

With one day left in the legislative session, the Georgia Senate on Friday voted to amend the controversial sexual harassment policy it set earlier this year.

The new guidelines require people who believe they’ve been harassed by a senator or Senate staffer to bring their allegations forward within four years of the alleged incident. Rules approved earlier this year had imposed a two-year time limit, when previously there had been no cutoff.

The vote was unanimous.

"Thank you for paying attention to the women of this Senate and revisiting this issue and fixing it," said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain. "It's not everything that we want, but it's better."

Less than a year after a lobbyist accused a veteran state senator, Republicans in the chamber forced through rules that limited the window for someone to bring accusations.

Rules approved by the majority-Republican chamber on the first day of the legislative session were met with an outcry and spurred Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to urge lawmakers to revisit them.

“This has been a priority of mine since the first moment I entered these chambers,” Duncan told the Senate. “It wasn’t just a priority to get this done. It was a priority to get this right.”

On the first day of the session, when the Senate's 21 Democrats and Buford Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman voted against the policy change, they said the rules would discourage those who've been harassed from coming forward.

The four-year time limit applies to all complaints about the conduct of senators, not just sexual harassment cases.

The Republican Senate leadership blocked the policy from being amended on the first day of the session. So it required two-thirds consensus in the Senate to make the changes.

The changes also get rid of January-approved rules that would have sanctioned anyone who filed a complaint and made it public as well as a guideline that barred cases from being investigated while a senator was running for re-election or other office.

"I'm proud of the work that we've done," said Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrolton. "That's both sides of the aisle."

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 GOP 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. Even under the potential revised rules, her case would not be investigated because the alleged harassment happened more than four years before she reported it.

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