State agency head faces complaints about inappropriate comments

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Channel 2's Richard Elliot reports

The head of Georgia’s Office of Highway Safety was required to complete workplace behavior training after he made inappropriate comments about sexual activities to his employees.

The complaints against Harris Blackwood included an incident when he discussed with an intern a sexual advance made to him by the wife of a colleague, and another when he made a startling comment at a staff meeting referring to a sexual act. He confirmed that several incidents cited in the complaints occurred, and he apologized for his conduct.

The exchanges, along with several other accusations outlined in a report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, took place between Feb. 7 and Feb. 10.

A final investigative report concluded that there was likely a pattern of “inappropriate” comments made by Blackwood, who was described as a “sometimes socially awkward” manager.

“It appears that he seems to cross the lines of professionalism without awareness or intent to cause offense or harm,” said the March report, penned by a state human resources investigator. “There are indications that Mr. Blackwood’s professionalism is as much an issue as the sexual nature of his comments.”

Blackwood, who has led the agency since Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to the job in 2011, was a longtime Gainesville Times reporter when he left the publication to work for Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor. ​He said he completed the workplace training in the spring, notching a 90 on the final exam. He was not issued a formal reprimand.

“I would never intentionally say something to offend anyone,” Blackwood told the AJC. “I have learned from this experience and have accepted responsibility and have moved forward to address the goals and needs of the Office of Highway Safety.”

Deal spokeswoman Sasha Dlugolenski said Friday that Blackwood has the full confidence of the governor.

The complaints outline several incidents. One staffer said she felt she needed to cross her arms across her chest because Blackwood was staring at her. Another said that she asked Blackwood to leave when he told her to talk “soft and low” when she called him with a weather update. (He told the investigator he was joking.) He was also accused of saying women and alcohol were the necessities of his life.

Two of the incidents took place on Feb. 7 as the agency, which coordinates traffic safety, was preparing for a blast of wintry weather.

The first involved Lauren Armour Pugh, who was then the agency’s deputy director. She said Blackwood and several other state officials were huddled in a conference room talking about strategies to help the public avoid panicking when he made a startling, sexually inappropriate comment.

Pugh said she stared at the floor in shock after hearing those words. The meeting suddenly got very quiet, she said, and staffers soon dispersed.

Blackwood said he meant the comment for a male co-worker as part of a joke about an old movie.

That same day, Blackwood told an intern that a friend’s wife was flirting with him on Facebook and had asked him “just how married are you?” The intern told the investigator it made her feel uneasy.

”He just does not know boundaries,” the intern, who was soon transferred to another department, told an investigator.

Blackwood said it was made in reference to the shocking things people say on Facebook. “I also said, ‘I unfriended her so fast it would make your head swim,’ ” he told the investigator.

Col. Mark McDonough, the head of the state Department of Public Safety, told the investigator that he considered Blackwood a jokester who tries to lighten the mood with quips. He compared him to the late comedian John Candy.

“His personality lends him to that stage,” McDonough said. “He is a performer, always on.”

Pugh, who has since moved to another state job, said in the report that the February incidents weren’t the first awkward comments he had made, and that she was concerned his behavior would have a negative impact on the staff.

Blackwood, in his own comments to the investigator, said the remarks weren’t intended to make employees feel uncomfortable.

“You never know what others may find offensive,” Blackwood said. “I should have known better.”