Georgia’s state Capitol. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

#MeToo slow in coming — and kept mostly out of view — at Georgia Capitol

The #MeToo movement has roiled state legislatures across the country, but it has been slow to catch on in Georgia’s Capitol. 

Female lobbyists and lawmakers here say they are afraid to discuss the issue or file complaints because it could cost them their jobs or influence.

So they’ve largely remained silent, sometimes for years.

In a place run largely by men, where discretion is prized if not expected, the imbalance of power has resulted in a Capitol culture that one former lawmaker called a “cesspool of misogyny.”

A system of laws and policies has kept sexual harassment claims mostly hidden and left many women reluctant to speak up. The system designed to protect the privacy of accusers has meant the public is kept from knowing about the possible misdeeds of their elected officials. Instead, complaints are handled behind closed doors by a small group of lawmakers whose processes are unknown.

Policies for protecting accusers and the accused are important, experts say, but the lack of transparency diminishes their credibility.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been investigating Georgia’s policies and methods for handling sexual harassment complaints for three months. We closely followed and reported on each step of harassment proposals making their way through the General Assembly this year.

The AJC also filed several open records requests with the state House and Senate for information about the policies and any sexual harassment complaints made to legislative leaders. We talked to dozens of people — including several female lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members — many of whom didn’t want to speak on the record.

Only one of the women who spoke to the AJC, a longtime lobbyist, reported the male lawmaker who she said harassed her, filing a complaint with the Senate Clerk’s Office. For the rest, the stakes, they say, are too high. “I’d never work in this town again,” one lobbyist said.

When the lobbyist filed her complaint this month alleging years of harassment by a state senator, it rocked the statehouse. For the first time in many years, a formal misconduct complaint was made public; but not by the Legislature, which has the authority to investigate and punish lawmakers.

Georgia’s policies allow harassment allegations to remain confidential. Punishments for lawmakers meted out by colleagues, or settlements paid to alleged victims by the state, are kept from the public unless lawmakers vote to disclose them.

A lobbyist at the Georgia Capital has accused Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, of sexual harrassment. Shafer has denied the charges. (JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM)

The recent complaint against state Sen. David Shafer was filed only after House and Senate leaders expanded the General Assembly’s policy for reporting such allegations to include third parties, such as lobbyists.

The complaint was independently obtained and reported by the AJC, not from the statehouse office that received the allegations. Even after reporting the complaint, the General Assembly’s attorney refused a request seeking information about any sexual harassment complaints involving the Senate or staff simply because it doesn’t have to provide it.

Georgia’s Legislature is not subject to the state’s open records laws.

For her part, the lobbyist who filed the complaint has already had her professionalism and performance questioned. Despite filing the complaint anonymously through her lawyer, the woman’s identity has been outed on social media.

The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual misconduct, but it has long known her identity as rumors of the alleged misconduct have for years circulated through the halls of the Capitol.

Shafer, a leading Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, called her claims “ridiculous,” and he went on to characterize the woman as “a 15-minute, attention-seeking wannabe trying to settle an old score.”

READ | Lobbyist files sexual harassment complaint against Georgia lawmaker

READ | Georgia Legislature’s lawyer: We won’t release sexual harassment info

After the complaint was filed, Shafer’s campaign released three affidavits it had solicited stating he studiously avoided having meetings alone with the lobbyist.

One of the affidavits came from Michael Shelnutt, a lobbyist and Shafer campaign donor who worked with the senator and the lobbyist at the Georgia Republican Party in the 1990s. He said at the time, the lobbyist dated Shafer and a TV reporter who was married.

The lobbyist who accused Shafer denied they ever dated and said she turned him down when he asked her out.

That is disputed by those in the affidavits and other lobbyists who raised questions about the allegations. One said she had a “crush” on Shafer when they worked together.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said such responses to accusations aren’t unusual.

“Regrettably, women often feel compelled to remain silent because they become victimized again by the person who originally victimized them,” she said. “Their reputation is dragged through the mud, they are by implication condemned as a woman of ill repute. It’s a huge disincentive to expose yourself. I admire a woman who is brave enough to step out and withstand all the attacks.

“This is not a new tactic. We have seen it over and over and over again over the years,” Orrock said.

Late last week, despite the harassment claims against Shafer, DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester endorsed his campaign for lieutenant governor, saying she believes the allegations against him could be politically motivated.

“If somebody is going to bring proof forward, please do so,” said Jester, who will also serve as a co-chairwoman of Shafer’s campaign. “I would certainly put it into my calculus if I could see that, but I just haven’t been presented that.”

Some lawmakers say there simply isn’t much of a problem in Georgia, but with the state’s opaque system it’s hard to know.

House Speaker David Ralston was elected to the leadership post in 2009 after Glenn Richardson resigned following accusations that he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. He said the Legislature’s “zero-tolerance” policy for harassment has made the difference here. “The outcome is that we don’t have any of the problems that other states have had,” said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge.

Even so, Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle ordered the review of existing policies that led to changes in the state’s sexual harassment policy in hopes of preventing the kind of situations seen in other states.

A history of bad behavior

While male legislators wear suits and ties every day to the session, and lawmakers address each other as “gentleman” or “lady” or “chairman” — if they’ve risen to that level — sexual decorum has not always been so closely adhered to in and around the statehouse. A few recent examples:

  • In interactions with a male lawmaker, a female lobbyist described how he looked down her shirt the entire time she tried to explain her client’s bill.
  • Another female lobbyist said a lawmaker rubbed his hands down her back as she tried to promote her legislation.
  • A female legislative staffer went looking for career advice from a veteran male lawmaker but said she was propositioned for her troubles. “He asked me what I brought to the table for him to help me and told me he had a hotel room down the street that we could go to,” said Bianca Thrasher, who agreed to be identified in this story

Decades ago legislative lore was filled with stories of “typing pools” made up of “secretaries” who doubled as girlfriends, of prostitutes being auctioned off at a downtown hotel, of a Playboy bunny being escorted into the Senate chamber in the mid-1960s.

Wolf whistles and catcalls were directed at women appearing before a committee in the early 1990s.

It was so commonplace, women had a name for it.

“Talking under your dress,” said “Able” Mable Thomas, one of the longest-serving state representatives in the Legislature. Thomas, D-Atlanta, came to the statehouse in 1985. She was 25.

“It was almost an unspoken rule where it was no big deal, it was just fun,” she said. “It was always couched as a joke. At that time sexual harassment wasn’t really a word.”

Anita Hill speaks during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, where she testified that Thomas sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 11, 2017. (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)

It took the 1991 Anita Hill case — in which the attorney accused her boss, then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment — to bring that type of misconduct into the public eye, she said.

But change was slow.

A state committee chairman in 1994 was reprimanded — after much press coverage — for bringing a novelty apron with a fake penis onto the floor of the House and showing it around. Among those who saw it was a 13-year-old page, whom critics claimed was shown the apron in an effort to embarrass him.

An angry House member who was running for governor responded by saying reporters who covered the issue were likely “gay.”

In July 1995, lobbyists took five lawmakers to a resort on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island, bringing along four dancers from the Cheetah nude dancing club.

One of the lawmakers — who many expected would one day be governor — decided not to run for re-election after the story broke, and he became a top state lobbyist. Only one of the lawmakers on the trip remains in the General Assembly, and he is currently a committee chairman.

The lobbyist who invited the Cheetah dancers, Rusty Kidd, eventually was elected to a state House seat.

End-of-the-session parties were often rowdy, with lawmakers, lobbyists and aides — male and female — sharing drinks and letting off steam after three months of legislating.

One of the biggest scandals in decades broke in 2009 when Richardson’s ex-wife went on TV to accuse him of engaging in a “full-out affair” with a utility lobbyist while she was pushing a bill to benefit her employer.

The accusation ended his political career and that of the Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist.

It’s not just lawmakers who have made the news.

In 2008, former state Rep. Garland Pinholster resigned from the state Transportation Board after news broke that two Department of Transportation employees accused him of sexual harassment.

Three years ago, the head of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety was required to complete workplace behavior training after he made inappropriate comments about sexual activities to employees.

Harris Blackwood, the agency director, apologized for his conduct and remains in the $120,000-a-year job. Blackwood, a longtime Gainesville Times reporter, was named to the post by Gov. Nathan Deal after working on his campaign in 2010.

Slow evolution

In some places the impact of the #MeToo movement has been swift. Lawmakers in states including Arizona, California, Florida and Oregon have resigned amid misconduct allegations and admissions. Investigations are ongoing into the actions of several others, and some legislatures are voting to force out their accused colleagues who won’t resign on their own.

Since mid-October, 12 lawmakers have resigned and two others have been expelled from legislatures in nine states amid sexual harassment allegations, according to data kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Records kept by Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States, counts 18 male lawmakers in a dozen states who have resigned, announced their intentions to resign, been removed from a leadership position or otherwise punished, according to a January report.

In most states, legislatures prompted and led by vocal and empowered groups of advocates and many times female lawmakers are reviewing rules and creating new ones to protect against bad behavior. Georgia is no different.

READ | Georgia lawmakers required to receive sex harassment training

Here, leaders of both chambers tasked a legislative leadership committee to review the state’s 2010 sexual harassment policies. The committee proposed an expanded policy requiring state lawmakers to receive training every two years. The policy, approved and implemented by chamber leaders, also includes lawmakers’ dealings with lobbyists and part-time employees, and it provides more ways to report harassment claims.

A couple of female Democrats proposed their own sexual harassment bills.

“Our state is not exempt from the behaviors that need more scrutiny and needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, whose bill also required state department heads to receive harassment training every two years. “I wanted to start the conversation.”

Parent’s bill didn’t receive a committee vote.

Change is coming, but it’s slow, state Sen. Renee Unterman said. When she was elected to the Legislature in 1998, women were more segregated and the “rules” were different.

“When I first got into politics I was 32 years old and gender did matter,” said Unterman, a Buford Republican. “I had to wear a skirt, a blouse, hose every day and high heels. I’m just one of the boys in the caucus now, and that’s the way it should be.

“One of the things that’s changing is we have more women in politics, and women have a seat at the table,” she added. “When that occurs, I believe you see laws or policies or rules changed.”

Women currently make up just over one-quarter of all state legislators in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is the first time the number has been greater than 25 percent since at least 2010. That number is higher in Georgia, where 27.1 percent of its 236 state lawmakers are women, up from 19.1 percent eight years ago. Just 21 states have a greater percentage of women among their legislative ranks, NCSL data shows.

A vast majority of the most powerful committees in Georgia are now and have always been run by men, although a few, such as the panels that govern health care legislation, are headed by women.

That kind of dominance leaves the door open to the possibility of abuse, former state Rep. Keisha Waites said.

“I felt marginalized, felt dismissed in committee hearings, there was a desire to quell my voice when it came to women’s issues,” said Waites, who resigned her state seat in September to make an unsuccessful bid to lead the Fulton County Commission. “In a place that is a cesspool of misogyny, it’s difficult to get legislation pushed pertaining to these issues.”

The legislative committee selected to devise the sexual harassment policy included just one woman, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones. The makeup had little to do with gender and more to do with timing and leadership, Ralston said. Jones is the only female member of of the legislative leadership committee that handles issues related to both General Assembly chambers.

House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, R - Milton

For her part, Jones, who led the committee as its chairwoman, said she was satisfied with its makeup.

“I was comfortable with being the only female because I was serving with fathers, brothers, sons,” she said. “I didn’t feel there was a lack of input on this committee. The biggest member of this committee was our outside legal counsel, who is an experienced female employment lawyer.”

That lawyer, she said, was adamant that the policy protect the identity of victims. Generally, accusers of sexual misconduct have been mostly female, and at the Capitol, unofficial reports of bad behavior have mostly involved female lobbyists. For them, the imbalance of power is great. If lobbyists can’t persuade lawmakers to pass legislation supporting their clients, they don’t work.

Like lawmakers, the Georgia Professional Lobbyist Association began having talks about sexual harassment in response to the national headlines and stories of bad behavior involving lobbyists in other states, said Jet Toney, the association’s volunteer chairman. Beginning in the spring, the group — which counts about 200 members, or 20 percent of Georgia’s lobbyists — will hold sexual harassment training.

The General Assembly’s updated policy allows a person to report sexual misconduct to the clerk of the House, secretary of the Senate, legislative fiscal officer or the House and Senate ethics committees. It also allows a subcommittee of lawmakers to investigate complaints or hire an outside party to investigate — but doesn’t mandate it, ultimately allowing legislators to possibly investigate complaints against their colleagues.

“I have every confidence that if it rose to any level that would merit a true investigation that we would hire outside counsel for that very reason,” said Jones, a Republican from Milton.

But some longtime lawmakers, including those who have pushed this year for expanded sexual harassment rules, have been quiet about possible transgressions by their Capitol colleagues. During an interview after a press conference by Democrats pushing their own sexual harassment legislation, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she is aware of some bad behavior at the Capitol, but she — and others — refused to talk about individual cases when asked by an AJC reporter.

Veteran lawmaker Alan Powell said it’s hard for him to wrap his head around the issue. “I can’t imagine an individual using their influence or whatever to try to threaten somebody. Now, obviously it must happen, but not with the people I’ve been associated with up here,” said the Republican representative from Hartwell, who has served in the General Assembly since 1991.

“It’s almost like this has become like the reporting of a lot of certain crimes, people are deemed to be guilty in the eyes of the public before there’s ever a trial,” Powell said. “And there’s one thing that our government and laws are based on and that’s due process. You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”

One thing that needs to change is Georgia’s law allowing the Legislature to keep harassment claims against lawmakers confidential, said Craig Morgan, an Arizona attorney hired to investigate sexual harassment claims in that state’s Legislature.

“My personal view is that in any situation involving the investigation of misconduct at a legislature there needs to be a modicum of appropriate transparency relative to the situation,” he said. “There needs to be something more than ‘we’re not giving you anything at all.’ ”

Morgan’s three-month investigation in Arizona resulted in a public report that led to the expulsion of a state representative.

With sexual harassment policies and investigations, “an appropriately balanced amount of transparency is necessary that weighs the public’s right to know versus Georgia’s privacy laws,” Morgan said, “But it seems to me a wholesale carve-out of the legislature diminishes the credibility and believability of the policy.”

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston speaks to the AJC Editorial Board about Sexual Harassment

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