The lawyer investigating claims that state Sen. David Shafer, a leading Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, persistently sexually harassed a veteran lobbyist cast suspicion on the allegation in a report obtained exclusively Thursday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Attorney Penn Payne wrote that her conclusion was that “it is more likely that Sen. Shafer did not make sexually harassing comments and demands to (the lobbyist) than it is likely that he did, and that it is more likely that the (lobbyist) has fabricated her allegations of sexually harassing conduct than it is likely that she is telling the truth.”
Shafer, R-Duluth, had called for the Senate Ethics Commission to make the report public after senators met for four hours Thursday in closed-door, unpublicized meetings. Reporters were told that the committee would not make any announcement Thursday on whether it would dismiss or move forward with the complaint — first reported by the AJC on March 9.
When the meetings ended, Senate Ethics Chairman Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, said, “No comment until we are done with our work.” He didn’t say when that might be.
Later, Shafer tweeted, “We have not seen the report but have believed from the start it will exonerate us.”
Shafer, the top fundraiser in the lieutenant governor’s race and a former Senate leader, had called the complaint from a longtime lobbyist an attempt by a “a 15-minute, attention-seeking wannabe trying to settle an old score.”
The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The woman worked with Shafer at the Georgia Republican Party in the 1990s and later, as a lobbyist, sought his help to pass legislation. She accused Shafer of retaliating against her when she turned back his advances.
The 58-page report, marked “confidential” and obtained by the AJC independently, includes interviews with at least four lawmakers and about a half-dozen other officials.
It concluded there was no evidence that Shafer retaliated toward the lobbyist by killing her legislation and found that no witness who was interviewed heard Shafer make “sexually inappropriate remarks” to the accuser.
The accuser’s “description of Sen. Shafer as spitting venom, anger and resentment is at odds with the descriptions of him from some of the other witnesses who are female lobbyists,” who described him as professional.
Still, several of the people interviewed also said they didn’t discount the lobbyist’s accusations. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who told investigators he believed the lobbyist’s complaint.
“I had never known her to be dishonest. I have never known her to be dramatic or, you know, exaggerate in any way,” he said, according to the report. He added that it had a “ring of truthfulness to it.”
Payne wrote that the lobbyist made a series of “unfounded assumptions” that hurt her credibility. The most “glaring” was an assertion that Shafer was in favor of legislation she was pushing in 2011 before she said she refused his advances. Payne said the evidence shows he opposed the measure long before the alleged harassment took place.
“The fact that she told people about the sexual harassment in 2011-2014 using the same detail that is now in her complaint still weighs in her favor,” Payne wrote. “But it is not sufficient to overcome my concerns about her credibility and other factual conclusions that I have reached, which do not support the truth of her allegations and which support Sen. Shafer’s denials of the allegations.”
Sexual harassment cases have roiled statehouses across the country, but Georgia’s system is set up so complaints are handled behind closed doors.
The Georgia General Assembly exempted itself from the Georgia Open Records Act, so any filings are secret, although the AJC obtained a copy of the complaint.
The complaint alleged that harassment involving Shafer had been going on for years. After she turned down his advances, the lobbyist said, she was convinced Shafer would hurt her clients. He eventually stopped talking to her.
Shafer said the lobbyist has a history of making things up, and that he dated her in the 1990s, something she denied.
Shafer said he had a policy of not meeting alone with the lobbyist, and he produced affidavits from three people attesting to that policy. Two of the affidavits came from lobbyists who have contributed to Shafer’s campaign for lieutenant governor.
Senate leaders last month hired Payne, a frequent donor to Democratic Party candidates and causes, and a longtime mediator and arbitrator, to investigate the complaint.
Five days after the AJC reported the complaint, Burke contributed $2,500 to the lieutenant governor’s campaign of ex-state Sen. Rick Jeffares, one of two Republicans running against Shafer in the May 22 primary.
Because of big increases in the number of major sexual harassment accusations against celebrities and politicians last fall, Georgia lawmakers began reviewing their policies for dealing with those cases.
Sexual harassment complaints involving legislators and employees can be reported to the House Ethics Committee, the Senate Administrative Affairs Committee, the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House or the legislative fiscal officer, according to the Georgia General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.
Then complaints are forwarded to the Senate or House ethics committees for investigation by either a subcommittee or an outside third party.
Punishments for violations of the policy include counseling, termination or other discipline. Legislators could be expelled, fined or censured by a two-thirds vote of the House or Senate, according to the Georgia Constitution.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.