The major candidates in Georgia’s governor’s race are, top row, from left, Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, former state House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, former Republican state Sen. Hunter Hill, bottom row, Republican businessman Clay Tippins, former Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans and Republican state Sen. Michael Williams.

Georgia’s top candidates: Make harassment complaints publicly available

Georgia law doesn’t require the public release of sexual harassment complaints filed against lawmakers, or the taxpayer-funded settlements they may trigger. The leading candidates for Georgia governor want that changed.

Both the Democratic candidates for governor and each of the five top Republicans told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they support expanding Georgia’s sunshine laws to disclose at least some sexual harassment complaints involving state lawmakers.

A complaint that rocked the Gold Dome was a reminder that this is no esoteric debate. A longtime lobbyist filed an ethics complaint in March accusing state Sen. David Shafer, a powerful Republican, of sexual harassment, and the report only came to light when the AJC independently obtained it.

The outside lawyer investigating the complaint recently submitted a report, also independently obtained by the AJC, that cast suspicion on the allegation. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint Friday.

However, Shafer, a leading Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, was critical of the complaint becoming public, saying the allegations were false.

“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,” Shafer told reporters Friday.

The AJC requested the sexual harassment complaint and other related documents involving the Georgia Senate shortly after it was filed. The request was denied by the General Assembly’s lawyer, who said it wasn’t required to release information about the complaints.

That’s because the legislative branch, which receives more than $40 million in taxpayer money to operate — has long exempted itself from the state’s Open Records Act. Other state agencies, including the governor’s office and the executive branch, are required to comply with the law.

State lawmakers began reviewing their policies for handling sexual harassment complaints last year amid a surge in national awareness about the #MeToo movement, which references the campaign used by millions to expose allegations of misconduct on social media.

House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle appointed a committee that ordered additional training for lawmakers and staffers and set up new ways for potential victims to report harassment and abuse. It did not include a pathway to make the reports public.

‘Above the laws’

Many of the candidates for governor expressed anger or frustration that the sexual harassment complaints and possible settlements aren’t publicly available, and most said they wanted the state’s sunshine laws to more broadly apply to the legislative branch.

Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said the “lack of transparency is deeply problematic” and “sends the signal that type of behavior is acceptable” in calling for the documents to be covered by state transparency laws.

“We need to revisit it and expand transparency as much as feasible,” she said.

Her opponent in the Democratic primary, ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, said complaints should remain confidential while they are being investigated. Once the investigation is complete, though, she said the public has the right to know the result — “including how the members of the committee voted on whether to sanction the subject of the complaint.”

The leading Republicans also wanted to take action to make the complaints public. Businessman Clay Tippins said he filed an Open Records Act request on March 23 seeking the documents involving Shafer and has yet to receive a response.

“The fact that taxpayers’ money is being used to settle and cover up sexual harassment cases against legislators is disgusting, and Georgia deserves better,” Tippins said.

His rivals took a similar stance. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill said the sunshine laws should “absolutely apply to proceedings and verdicts” in these cases. And state Sen. Michael Williams said the state’s sunshine laws should remove “the double standard of exempting legislative members.”

“This is another clear case of state legislators thinking they are above the laws they place on others,” said Williams, who is on the committee that considered the complaint against Shafer.

‘A right to know’

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, too, said the state’s sunshine laws should include all records — including emails, texts and documents — and apply to all sexual harassment complaints and settlements involving elected officials and staff. He said victims of the crimes should be protected by redacting their names.

“In the interest of full transparency, I urge all candidates for governor to join me in demanding a public release of all sexual harassment settlements under the Gold Dome,” Kemp said. “We cannot allow this type of behavior to be normalized or held secret.”

And Cagle, the GOP front-runner, said he would support legislation in next year’s legislative session that would require the reports to be disclosed publicly if “there’s a finding of wrongdoing or a settlement paid by taxpayers.”

“We should open up existing laws in a careful and balanced way to provide for more disclosure in a way that protects privacy where appropriate,” he said. “I support doing so in the next session.”

The unequivocal support for expanding the state’s transparency laws does not necessarily mean a new governor will usher in the changes. That would also require support from the Legislature, which has long fought to remain exempted by the Open Records Act.

Still, First Amendment advocates lauded the shift. Richard Griffiths of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said he was “delighted to hear the candidates speaking up for the public’s right to know” and hoped it would trigger a broader discussion.

“This is outstanding, and I’d like to commend those who have spoken up,” Griffiths said. “It’s a very positive step, and it’s one of many steps that need to take place to make sure we have fully open government in Georgia.”

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