Female Georgia House Dems incensed over leadership harassment allegations

A reviw by an outside attorney was unable to substantiate allegations, including sexual harassment, against  House Minority Leader James Beverly, D–Macon. Many House Democrats are complaining that the process used to address the allegations against Beverly was both insular and inadequate, with his fellow Democratic leaders receiving the complaint, choosing the investigator to review the allegations, and then dismissing the matter without a vote by the full caucus. Some have called on Beverly, who is retiring from the House at the end of this year, to step down now. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

A reviw by an outside attorney was unable to substantiate allegations, including sexual harassment, against House Minority Leader James Beverly, D–Macon. Many House Democrats are complaining that the process used to address the allegations against Beverly was both insular and inadequate, with his fellow Democratic leaders receiving the complaint, choosing the investigator to review the allegations, and then dismissing the matter without a vote by the full caucus. Some have called on Beverly, who is retiring from the House at the end of this year, to step down now. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Just as Democrats are working to appeal to women ahead of the 2024 elections, a group of female Democratic lawmakers in Georgia is livid over recently disclosed allegations that House Minority Leader James Beverly sexually harassed a female staffer. Others also say Beverly threatened House members with legal action if they took action or spoke about it publicly. One freshman, state Rep. Ruwa Romman of Duluth, is now calling on Beverly to step down as leader.

“Although myself and many others recommended he step down, he has refused,” she said before adding: “Just because this issue didn’t rise to the level of legal repercussion doesn’t mean it wasn’t serious. I will continue to urge Leader Beverly to step aside to allow our caucus to move forward.”

Romman said the Democratic Party is the party of women’s rights, labor and worker protections, and that Democrats believe all people deserve to live free from abuse and fear. Beverly, she said, fell short of that standard.

At issue for Romman and other House Democrats, both men and women, are recent allegations from a Democratic staffer that Beverly showed a pattern of sexual harassment against her both before and during her pregnancy. A recent external review of the allegations determined that sexual harassment was not “substantially severe or pervasive” and “could not be substantiated.” Beverly, who denied wrongdoing all along, declared himself “exonerated” by the report.

Beverly is retiring from the General Assembly at the end of the year. In a statement Thursday, Beverly also said, “I am pleased that a thorough and thoughtful review found the complaint to be unfounded and I have no further comment at this time except to say that this was the process that the Caucus itself overwhelmingly endorsed.”

But many House Democrats are complaining that the process Beverly calls “thorough and thoughtful” was ultimately both insular and inadequate, with his fellow Democratic leaders receiving the staffer’s complaint, choosing the investigator to review the allegations, and deciding which information to withhold or share with the full caucus.

Among the documents the investigator said she did not receive as part of the process was the caucus’ anti-harassment policy. But a draft version of the policy reviewed by the AJC described a formal harassment complaint process managed largely by a human resources director. Not only did the caucus never adopt a formal anti-harassment policy, it also has no HR director.

A formal harassment complaint process administered by the House Ethics Committee was also not utilized. The Ethics Committee was given the responsibility in 2019 after a female lobbyist accused then-state Sen. David Shafer of sexual harassment in 2018.

After initially receiving the staffer’s written complaint at the end of this year’s legislative session, Democratic leaders sharply disagreed among themselves about how to handle the Beverly accusations, with the lawmaker himself directly involved in the decision until later recusing himself from the matter.

The Democratic leader most vocally opposed to the process was state Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta attorney who abruptly resigned from her position as caucus treasurer in May in protest of the way the allegations were handled.

“As the first person this employee reported to, I now have no choice but to speak up because James Beverly has called a pregnant woman a liar for standing up for herself,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the investigative process that Democratic leaders used was “wrong” and said she resigned because she felt crucial information about the woman’s complaints were being withheld from rank-and-file members. “I couldn’t be complicit in what leadership was doing,” she said.

Among the documents Democratic members never received was a four-page written complaint the staffer submitted to her supervisor in March that has now been reviewed by the AJC.

The separate final investigative report from attorney Cheryl Treadwell was only shared with members after the AJC reported on it earlier this week.

Although the Treadwell report included portions of the staffer’s initial allegations of harassment, it did not include many key details from the woman’s own complaint.

For example, the investigator’s report states that Beverly greeted the staffer at a March event by “lightly grabbing her by the lapels.” But the staffer’s complaint alleged that he also said “What, what, what is this?” as he held her lapels.

The report also omitted a request from Beverly to the staffer during her initial job interview to keep her job offer a secret until she decided to accept the position. Then, he said, she should call him on his personal cellphone number, which he then gave her. The staffer called the appropriate staff member instead.

One of the most serious allegations detailed in the investigator’s report — that Beverly asked the staffer in her job interview whether she planned to become pregnant — included the lawmaker’s explanation later that he was making family-related small talk after the interview was over. But the staffer said in her complaint she immediately felt the question was both illegal and inappropriate.

A second serious concern involved an allegation that Beverly told the then-pregnant staffer at the March event, “In another life, that baby would have been mine.” The report included Beverly’s denial that he used those exact words, along with his explanation that he was merely engaging in nostalgic banter as an empty-nester. But in her complaint, the woman said she believed Beverly meant to imply that he would have impregnated her instead of her husband.

“I find that implication to be wildly inappropriate and an undeniable display of sexual harassment in the workplace,” she wrote.

Ultimately, the staffer said she felt uncomfortable ever being alone with Beverly again, and she also feared her job and career could be jeopardized in the process. But Treadwell, the investigator hired by Democratic leaders, wrote that the allegations of sexual harassment had to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to meet a legal threshold — and that they “could not be substantiated.”

With the November election looming, Democratic members say the Beverly matter has consumed so much time since March — more than a half dozen meetings among leaders and two five-hour meetings of the caucus — that the caucus leadership has taken its eye off defending Democratic incumbents. One, state Rep. Teri Anulewicz of Smyrna, lost her primary election in May to a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Anulewicz said she is also not satisfied with the investigator’s findings.

“My main takeaway is that an action not crossing a legal or policy boundary doesn’t mean it hasn’t crossed an ethical boundary,” she said. As to Beverly specifically, she said, “Should the leader of the party be someone who is moving forward with the cloud of these allegations regardless of whether or not there is no conclusive evidence that any laws were broken?”

But other Democrats in the caucus are speaking out to defend the investigation, without commenting on Beverly or the allegations against him.

“I think it was a fair and equitable process for both the complainant and the respondent,” said state Rep. Karen Bennett, a senior House member from Stone Mountain and vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

The fallout from the accusations against Beverly has left the House Democratic caucus in crisis, with staff departing en masse and campaign operations ground to a halt. Many members and staff were willing to speak off the record about the situation, but said they feared legal action from the Minority Leader if they spoke out against him.

But that hasn’t kept all House Democrats silent. State Rep. Stacey Evans told me that ultimately: “The caucus is not a court and never should have tried to make itself one. Our values demand zero tolerance for improper sexual comments to or improper touching of a staffer. To hear the report claim essentially ‘once is OK,’ is disturbing.”

State Rep Lisa Campbell urged policy changes to protect staffers in the future.

“The undisputed actions (of Beverly) are the markers of a pattern of behavior,” she said. “This pattern of behavior is unacceptable.”

If Donald Trump had told a staffer, “in another life, that baby would have been mine,” Georgia’s House Democrats would likely be crying foul in unison. But with their own leader not only accused of harassment, but also threatening his colleagues, House Democrats are now mired in dysfunction, recriminations and fear.

“It’s been a nightmare,” one said. “An absolute nightmare.”