On his first day in office, Gov. Brian Kemp kept a campaign promise, ordering state government to reform the way employees’ sexual harassment claims are handled.
His executive order creates a centralized system with uniform standards to replace a disjointed, haphazard one that left victims seeking justice. But the reforms won’t happen overnight. They will require time to develop new training programs and more money and staff to ensure complaints are thoroughly investigated.
The reforms were prompted by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into more than 200 sexual harassment complaints across state government. The newspaper found sexual harassment victims were subjected to wildly different treatment depending on where they worked, with complaints often dismissed as harmless “cutting up” or interpreted as a mutual flirtation gone wrong.
As part of the investigation, the AJC asked both major gubernatorial campaigns what they would do to address the problem. Kemp responded with a promise to issue reforms on his first day in office.
Kemp’s executive order Monday requires every department and agency under his authority to designate “at least two persons, not of the same gender” to investigate complaints and report their findings to the state Office of Inspector General, which will collect and audit investigations from across state government. Sexual harassment investigators will be required to have “standardized investigative training … to ensure consistency among all sexual harassment investigations across the state.”
In addition, Kemp ordered a new sexual harassment prevention training program which every state employee will be required to take when they are first hired and annually after that. The order also bans retaliation against those who file complaints.
In a statement late Tuesday, Kemp said he aimed to ensure a “harassment-free workplace for executive branch employees and Georgians who interact with government.”
“By implementing uniform policies and training to prevent sexual harassment, handle complaints and conduct investigations,” he said, “we will build a safer, stronger Georgia and make it clear that we will not tolerate sexual harassment in state government.”
The order came as good news to Lynne Troha, a Georgia State Patrol employee and one of the victims of alleged harassment who spoke to the AJC for its series. Troha filed a complaint against a state trooper in 2017 whom she said harassed her on several occasions. Investigative documents show it took eight weeks for the Department of Public Safety to open an investigation.
The department disciplined the trooper but did not find that he sexually harassed her, even though he admitted telling Troha about his sex dreams and about having an erection. In their report, investigators said the trooper “did not perceive that any of these sexual comments were offensive or unwelcome” and decided the conversations were mutual.
Troha said she believes the investigation might have been handled differently if someone from outside the department had audited it.
“As a female today, with the #metoo movement you feel like you should be able to go to someone and say, ‘This is what happened,’” she said. “But they are still going to say, ‘Well, you caused it.’”
Karla Jacobs, a member of the Georgia Commission on Women, said it is important that sexual harassment complaints be handled “in a way that is transparent and fair to all parties.”
“Gov. Kemp’s executive order overhauling how executive branch agencies handle sexual harassment claims is a welcome start,” she said. “The AJC shined a light on the unequal handling of sexual harassment claims across government agencies, and we appreciate Gov. Kemp making it a top priority to ensure Georgia’s state employees can do their jobs in a harassment-free environment.”
The state Department of Administrative Services has been assigned the task of developing new training programs in consultation with the governor’s office.
The reforms also will tax the small Office of Inspector General. The OIG was created in 2003 to investigate waste, fraud and abuse within state government. The executive order greatly expands its mission and workload.
In its investigation, the AJC obtained about five years’ of records from nearly 30 executive agencies, finding employees filed an average of more than three dozen complaints annually.
But many other state departments, offices and commissions not included in the newspaper’s investigation may also field complaints. To handle the increased workload, the inspector general likely requires additional staff and a larger budget.
Kemp is expected to release details about his first budget this week.
While the new governor took strides to make government more accountable in handling sexual harassment, Senate leaders were lambasted for adopting rules narrowing the time for lodging complaints against its members. The rules also said alleged victims who talked publicly about being harassed could have their complaints dismissed and could even be fined.
The new rules come after a female lobbyist last year accused then-Sen. David Shafer of harassing her in 2011. Shafer’s fellow senators dismissed the complaint in a closed-door session. At the time, Shafer was a candidate for lieutenant governor, but he lost in the Republican primary to eventual winner Geoff Duncan.
Sen. Renee Unterman, one of only two women Republicans in the chamber, blasted the rule in a charged speech from the well Tuesday.
“It’s a shame,” she said. “In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had sexual harassment against me. I know personally what it feels like. It’s not a good feeling. We need rules and regulations, desperately, to protect people.”
Unterman, one of the state’s most powerful female politicians, said she would reveal more about her own harassment later this week.
State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Decatur, also vented her frustration at the rule change.
“We need to be in a time of opening up the doors to invite those who have been victimized to have a pathway for justice to be served,” said Orrock. “To put in this two-year time limit sends the wrong message.”
Duncan, sworn in as president of the Senate on Monday, said he was not a party to drawing up the rules. But the Republican former health executive said he wouldn’t rule out an attempt to urge the chamber to revisit the decision.
“This was always an issue I took seriously as a business owner,” he said. “In the role as lieutenant governor, I can assure you we will look at every opportunity to allow folks who have a grievance to speak up.”
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Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this report.