Deputy Inspector General Jenna Wiese (from left), State Inspector General Deborah Wallace, and General Counsel Bethany Whetzel at the Inspector General’s Office are the primary personnel reviewing sexual harassment reports under Kemp’s new policy. Gov. Brian Kemp is recommending five new staff members to handle a surge in complaints. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Kemp budget adds staff to investigate surge in harassment complaints

A year ago, newly installed Gov. Brian Kemp made reforming how the state handles sexual harassment complaints one of his first acts, putting State Inspector General Deborah Wallace as the administration’s point person on the issue.

This year, Kemp wants to expand Wallace’s office, adding money and new staff that give her new tools to investigate alleged harassment in state government.

Kemp’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget, unveiled last week, adds $435,182 to fund five new positions in the small government agency. The increase represents a 43% budget increase for the Inspector General’s office at a time when other agencies are being asked to cut their budgets.

“Gov. Kemp is committed to a safe, harassment-free environment for state employees and constituents, and his budget reflects this priority,” said spokeswoman Candice Broce. “Through new funding, we will add several staff positions to the Office of Inspector General to investigate complaints, audit agencies for compliance, and provide greater oversight for sexual harassment cases.”

Kemp also proposed another $250,000 in his amended 2020 budget for the agency, which already has brought on some new staff to handle the non-stop flow of complaints.

Wallace said the increase will pay for Bethany Whetzel, the office’s new general counsel, as well as a second auditor and at least two full-time investigators.

In an executive order signed last January on his first day in office, Kemp required state agencies to report all sexual harassment complaints to Wallace’s office and gave Wallace authority to independently review the complaints and assign an independent investigator to the case, if needed. Wallace has said finding people in state government willing to investigate claims in another department has been challenging, and she has advocated for a team of independent investigators to handle that task.

Since Kemp’s new policy took effect in March, Wallace’s office has recorded nearly 150 complaints from government offices across the state.

“I am very, very grateful for the increase, especially in these times,” Wallace told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

She also said the larger staff is a vote of confidence from Kemp.

“The fact that they have put it under us, it shows me that they trust me and my staff and I’m thankful for that,” she said. “We are serious about doing everything we can each and every day about bettering the culture of the government.”

Kemp’s reforms came after a series of investigative reports by the AJC into how sexual harassment complaints by state employees were handled. The newspaper’s reporting found agencies held employees to varying standards of conduct, resulting in slipshod investigations and haphazard results. Often employees who brought complaints forward were retaliated against, while their alleged harassers suffered no consequences.

Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

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