Secret Legislature discrimination settlement resurfaces in campaign

Fresh details have surfaced about a secret settlement of a racial discrimination complaint the state Legislature reached three years ago, pushed into the spotlight by a bitter fight underway for an Atlanta-area congressional seat.

The Legislature admitted no fault in the settlement that paid $80,500 to Ethel Blackmon, who complained she was fired because she is black from her position as a secretary in a legislative office shared by then-state Sen. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville and another senator, according to a documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The settlement also required Blackmon to drop her complaint.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, who’s locked in a competitive battle with Loudermilk in this month’s GOP runoff in the 11th Congressional District, dredged up the settlement this week at a candidates forum. The documents obtained by the AJC came from Todd Rehm, a Republican political consultant who works for Barr.

Loudermilk has said he was not involved in Blackmon’s firing or her settlement.

Former Republican state Sen. John Douglas of Social Circle, for whom Blackmon worked for five years before becoming a secretary in the office Loudermilk shared with state Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick, said the Senate’s staffing director interviews, hires and fires legislative secretaries, but does so in consultation with the senior senator in each office.

Ligon was designated the senior senator in his office with Loudermilk, a Loudermilk campaign spokesman said. Ligon was away on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But a spokeswoman for Ligon said the senator did not fire Blackmon.

While the settlement documents are emerging amid an election season, they are also shedding more light on business the Legislature conducts behind closed doors. In 2011, the AJC and other news media outlets reported on the settlement but were unable to provide key details because lawmakers refused to make the documents public. The General Assembly’s legislative counsel rejected a request for the same records Thursday, saying the Legislature is not subject to Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Rehm posted the documents Thursday on his website, GaPundit.com, which focuses on Republican politics. He said the documents were emailed to him and that he was unable to identify the source.

Melvin Everson, the executive director of the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity, raised questions about the record of Blackmon’s complaint, saying it was not filed with his office and noting it is not signed, notarized, assigned a case number or date-stamped. But Ed Buckley, an attorney with the law firm that represented Blackmon, said the records are authentic. Buckley said he did not give them to Rehm.

A veteran state government employee, Blackmon was fired weeks after she was assigned to work as an administrative assistant in the legislative office of Loudermilk and Ligon, the records show. In her complaint, Blackmon wrote Ligon and Loudermilk had not raised any concerns about her performance before she was fired. She said Ligon told her some family photos and artwork she placed in the office had to go. She said he also had a “condescending” tone with her. She did not make similar remarks about Loudermilk in her complaint.

Blackmon said a state human resources official ultimately told her “it was not working out with the senators” and that their personalities were “not a good fit.” The staffer, she said, also told her: “Just face it, you are not the face they want representing them to their constituency.” Blackmon said she later learned that a white woman had replaced her.

“I believe that I have been discriminated against based upon my race, African American,” Blackmon wrote in her complaint.

Serving as Senate president pro tempore at the time, Republican Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons signed the confidential settlement agreement with Blackmon. She dropped her complaint four days later. Williams and Blackmon did not respond to requests for comment.

Blackmon “called me this morning and she said she really does not want to be involved in this — that this thing happened three years ago and she just wants to get on with her life,” Buckley said, adding about the settlement: “It was obviously important to the Legislature to keep it confidential and you could decide why that is.”

Douglas spoke highly of Blackmon on Thursday.

“I had more compliments on her work from my constituents than I had on myself,” he said. “I would repeatedly get compliments on her work. We had a very smooth-running office. She did everything that I asked her to do. And I had no complaints.”

Loudermilk and Barr are competing in the July 22 primary runoff to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, who lost in his campaign this year for the U.S. Senate. The winner will head to Washington, as no Democrats have gotten on the ballot. The district includes all of Bartow and Cherokee counties and parts of Cobb and Fulton counties.

Barr brought up the settlement Tuesday during a candidates forum in Acworth.

“I don’t have a clue what you are talking about,” Loudermilk responded. “The Senate Human Resources Department let go an employee that happened to be assigned in my office. I had nothing to do with the lawsuit. I don’t know any of the details. That was between the state and the Human Resources Department of the Senate. In the Senate, they don’t work for you. They work for the Senate.”

Barr responded: “It’s just very interesting that one can claim complete ignorance and say, ‘I know nothing. I know nothing.’ … The lady was employed in his office in the Senate, and yet he claims that he knows nothing about an $80,000 judgment that was sealed and which he refuses to release.”

Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Loudermilk’s campaign, said: “It’s clear Barry had nothing to do with this — didn’t even know about the suit until after it was well over — and personnel actions in the Senate are done by the secretary of the Senate. Employee gets fired, sues the taxpayers and gets a payoff. It’s a sad commentary on the system and a sadder commentary on Bob Barr and his character.”

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