Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, seen here at the 31st Biennial Institute for Georgia legislators in Athens last month, has pledged to reform how the state handles sexual harassment complaints lodged by its employees. A spokesman said in September that an exectutive order would come “during his first day in office.” ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kemp promises to reform how GA treats sexual harassment victims

Her supervisor had her so on edge, just talking to him on the phone made her heart pound, the state employee said when she lodged a sexual harassment complaint.

Once, months earlier, he reportedly had followed her up a stairwell after a meeting at the Department of Juvenile Justice’s central office. “Those pants sure are tight,” he told her, then he reached up and cupped her backside, according to her account. She put out her hands and told him to back off, to never touch her again.

But things got worse. In conversations he called her “honey” and “babe,” grating on her. He was a career educator with a doctorate, ranking two levels below the commissioner in the division that runs schools inside youth jails and prisons. Yet during a planning meeting, he stood up, pretended to lose his balance and fell across her, “like a school boy playing around,” as one witness described it in records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“When I have to go to the central office, I call to find out if he is there before I come up to the third floor. When I am invited to a meeting and he will be there I become uncomfortable,” the woman said in her written statement.

“I should not have to feel this way at work.”

That sentiment has been resounding through the halls of state government in the wake of the #MeToo movement. This year, relief could be on the way for a workforce that’s nearly two-thirds female, after a series of AJC articles exposed how the state’s haphazard response to sexual harassment complaints has created toxic environments and made reporting risky for employees.

During last year’s campaign season, several politicians vowed to make reforms in light of the AJC’s findings. One of them was the state’s governor-elect, who told the newspaper that, if he won, he would take immediate steps to change how Georgia treats workers who come forward with harassment claims.

Through a spokesman, Brian Kemp had said that on his first day in office, he would issue an order overhauling the sexual harassment training program and making the state’s inspector general’s office the ultimate repository for complaints, ending the current siloed system where each department handles cases in its own way. Employees would instead have “multiple paths for investigation and resolution of claims,” the spokesman explained.

The AJC asked Kemp’s team if this is still his plan. A spokesman confirmed that, but didn’t respond to follow-up questions seeking to clarify whether sexual harassment reform remains a day-one priority. Kemp takes office Jan. 14.

“During the campaign, Governor-elect Kemp outlined his plan to reform state government,” Cody Hall said in an email. “In January, he will turn these campaign promises into reality.”

State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, said she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

“I know he has a wife and daughter, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is sincere and going to do it,” Kendrick said. “So I’m going to trust that he is going to put people in place to do it correctly.”

After what Jammie Duvall went through working for the Department of Behavioral Health, she said she’s skeptical. As a cafeteria worker for West Central Regional Hospital in Columbus, Duvall said she was bullied relentlessly by a warehouse worker who made crude comments and told pornographic stories as they delivered meals across the campus in a food truck.

Jammie Duvall said she was bullied so relentlessly by a co-worker at West Central Georgia Hospital, she wound up quitting faster than the state could fire the man. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to a case file reviewed by the AJC, her immediate supervisor was of no help, even insinuating to other employees that Duvall and the warehouse worker were having sex. Duvall reported the abuse to a higher supervisor, who took her complaint no further. Human Resources finally got involved, but by the time the department fired the warehouse worker and reprimanded both supervisors, Duvall had quit.

She said she still resents that Human Resources didn’t inform her that she had a right to file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She doubts the new governor can compel supervisors to inform low-ranking, low-paid employees that they have a right to go to the inspector general.

“They’re only going to tell you what they want you to know,” Duvall said.

Streamlining complaints

Kemp’s plan also included having an anonymous tip line and ensuring victims have both male and female department officials they can go to with complaints. Kemp also said he would consult with leaders from the public and private sectors on best practices before finalizing any policy.

The Georgia office of 9to5, a nonprofit workplace advocacy organization, offered its help to the governor-elect in fleshing out the missing details of his plan — specifically his pledge to create a review committee, develop a uniform anti-sexual harassment training program and distribute policies and procedures to all employees.

“The plan outlined by Brian Kemp during his campaign for governor is a decent start, but it is simply that: a start,” Executive Director Leng Leng Chancey said in a written statement.

Making the inspector general the ultimate recipient of claims, with a panel to review cases, would mark a significant change. Harassment victims often feel marginalized by the complaint process, but they currently have no authority they can turn to beyond their own departments. The AJC found that no one in state government is tracking or cataloguing complaints, much less looking for trends or problems with work cultures.

The state’s central human resources office has zero enforcement authority. As an Administrative Services’ assistant commissioner and general counsel told the newspaper, each agency can apply the rules in its own way “to fit its culture and other business needs.”

Often times, the AJC found in examining 205 cases from 21 agencies, such “business needs” have translated to upper-ranking employees getting lighter sanctions — or zero sanctions. Meanwhile, some others accused of similar harassing behaviors get the ax.

Harris Blackwood, who heads the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, was ordered to take training courses on professionalism after complaints of lewd comments and leering. 

For example, the director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety had only to take some training courses on office professionalism after an investigation sustained multiple complaints of lewd comments and leering. A senior manager for the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency received only a talking-to after several employees came forward about unwanted touching and suggestive remarks.

Meanwhile, two food safety inspectors for the Department of Agriculture lost their jobs over accusations that they harassed a trainee.

Last year, the Department of Juvenile Justice fired a senior investigator over a series of untoward comments to a younger central office worker. Passing her cubicle as she worked on posters for a reception, Ali-Kabir Muhammad reportedly glanced at her computer and said, “I see you watching those quadruple-X videos. I didn’t know you were into that,” according to the woman’s complaint.

The woman still works for the state and declined to participate in this story. The AJC does not name sexual harassment victims without their permission.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice fired Ali-Kabir Muhammad last year, citing “an inappropriate and offensive comment” to a female co-worker. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Muhammad did not respond to phone messages or a certified letter sent to his home. According to the case file, during questioning he apologized for making the woman feel uncomfortable and denied having any sexual intentions when he made the comments. But he flunked a polygraph test.

His termination letter cited him for employee misconduct.

“Inv. Muhammad believes this new millennial generation perceives things differently than we do that are quite a few decades old,” the final case summary says.

Higher rank, lighter sanction

The Juvenile Justice assistant schools superintendent, accused by a subordinate of grabbing her backside and pretending to fall on her during a meeting, also flunked a polygraph, state records show.

But even though the allegations involved physical contact, Roy Davenport’s punishment was far less severe than for the fired investigator. He got five days’ suspension without pay and had to attend sexual harassment re-training.

In response to an interview request and written questions seeking an explanation for the disparate punishments of the two men, the department said in a written statement that it “promptly and fully investigates any concerns of harassment raised by its employees.

“Each individual disciplinary action was based on the investigation’s outcome,” the statement said.

In an interview with the AJC, Davenport, who has since retired, called the investigation a “bogus witch hunt.”

“I had supervised far more female employees during my tenure there, and so it’s ironic that there was never any charges like that that ever came up before,” Davenport said. “I don’t have a track record of that kind of foolishness.”

Roy Davenport, a former assistant superintendent for the Department of Juvenile Justice’s schools system, denies allegations that he sexually harassed a subordinate in 2016. The department suspended him for five days without pay, citing unprofessional conduct. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He said his accuser, a regional schools principal, was disgruntled because he planned to make organizational changes that would have affected her job assignment. He said he probably failed the polygraph because it was administered the day after the 2016 presidential election, and he’d had little sleep and was still in shock about the results.

Although he initially told an investigator that he touched the woman’s lower body in the stairwell by accident, he later said that he had actually taken the elevator on the date she alleged the groping occurred.

However, an internal affairs investigator found three other women who said Davenport called females babe, baby or sweetheart. “We’re in the South,” Davenport told the AJC.

Two other women said they witnessed the fake fall. Davenport said the meeting was held in a cramped room, and the fall was real.

“Really?” he said. “From the stairwell where it was me and her, six months later I’m trying to harass her in front of a crowd of people? That don’t add up.”

The woman who accused him still works for Juvenile Justice. She declined an interview request for this story.

Experts told the AJC that when high-ranking officials skate on sustained harassment charges, it can be devastating to office morale. The problem mirrors the rainmaker/superstar phenomenon in the private sector, where a company tolerates harassment by its top money-makers, said Elaine Herskowitz, a former EEOC staff attorney who’s now a private consultant.

Several employees told the newspaper there’s a perception that a boys’ club of older, entrenched males holds the keys to power in Georgia government. Kemp’s plan does not specifically address unequal sanctions, although a spokesman said that the inspector general would give victims a reporting option “outside of the supervisory chain.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said the mere fact that Kemp wants to make policies consistent across the executive branch represents progress. But if he adds responsibilities to the inspector general’s office, he has to add resources, too, she said.

“It has to be staffed, it has to be professional and it has to be responsive in a timely manner,” Oliver said. “And those will be the challenges.”

Data reporter Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

KEMP’S CAMPAIGN PROMISE

Brian Kemp’s campaign team sent this statement to the AJC in September:

As a husband, father, and businessman, Brian Kemp believes that unlawful harassment and retaliation for unlawful harassment claims are unacceptable and should not be tolerated in the workplace.

During his first day in office, Kemp will issue an Executive Order that requires training for state employees, empowers and protects victims, and provides a streamlined, thoughtful, and effective process for filling complaints.

While Kemp will consult with leaders from the public and private sectors on best practices before finalizing any policy, his Executive Order will, at a minimum, include the following:

• Mandate anti-sexual harassment training as part of new employee orientation with additional training for supervisors, create website with updated policies and resources;

• Create Review Committee and designate the State’s Inspector General as ultimate recipient and repository for unlawful harassment claims, provide an anonymous “tip line” and web portal for victims, and ensure that both male and female executives are available in agencies to receive harassment complaints;

• Keep the alleged victim’s identifying information confidential (In response to a follow-up question on this point, Kemp’s spokesman said the candidate “recognizes the importance of protecting the victim while ensuring transparency. He will seek insight from government leaders and victims’ advocates on how best to strike that balance.”);

• Require prompt review and investigation of all complaints;

• Require state executive agencies to conduct annual harassment training, develop a uniform training course for employees;

• Assure that harassment policies and procedures are distributed to employees.

As governor, Brian Kemp will make state government transparent, effective, and safe. He will ensure that all state employees are treated with respect and held accountable for inappropriate workplace behavior.

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