In perhaps its first nonceremonial action of the 2019 legislative session, Georgia’s Republican-controlled Senate on Monday put new restrictions on ethics and sexual harassment complaints.
The changes to the Senate’s official rules make it more difficult for accusers to get a complaint heard by the Senate Ethics Committee and put in place legal risks for a complainant.
The new Senate rules, passed by a vote mostly along party lines Monday, say ethics and sexual harassment complaints must be filed with the secretary of the Senate within two years of when the alleged harassment or violation occurred.
The Senate’s previous rules included no time limit.
The House’s rules, before this year, effectively said a complaint had to be filed within four years of an incident. That remained in the rules passed by the state House on Monday.
Both the state House and Senate pass separate rules every two years about everything from seemingly mundane procedural processes for passing a bill, to dress code, to ethics.
The new Senate rules appear to grant the Ethics Committee leeway to “sanction” people who file complaints it deems frivolous.
“Such sanctions,” the rules read, “may include but not be limited to any or all of the following: that the person be reprimanded, be required to reimburse the cost associated with the complaint, be fined, or be otherwise sanctioned under the contempt power of the Senate as provided by the Constitution of this state.”
Ahead of the 2018 legislative session, four women described incidents of harassment and assault to WABE during their careers working at the state Capitol, but they said they feared speaking publicly would bring retribution or further abuse.
Another change to Senate rules appears to raise the bar for whether a complaint should move forward before the Ethics Committee.
A previous version of the Senate rules said “reasonable grounds” were required. But the version of the rules passed Monday says if the Ethics Committee determines “substantial credible evidence” does not exist, then the complaint can be dismissed.
“It will stand in the way of investigations being done,” said Democratic state Rep. Nan Orrock of Atlanta, who voted against the rule changes.
“Why would we raise the bar for a complaint to be investigated and create this very high standard or substantial credible evidence when that’s often difficult to determine until you conduct the investigation?” she asked.
The House rules include the language “substantial evidence” as the threshold for whether a complaint should move forward before the House Ethics Committee. Republican senators defending the rule changes did not mention the similar language in the House rules.
Senate Pro Tem, Republican Butch Miller of Gainesville, was the lead sponsor of the rule changes. Republican Majority Leader Mike Dugan defended the legislation on the Senate floor.
“It’s a modification of a way we’ve been doing ethics,” Dugan said. “The intent behind that is to provide more transparency, to provide more clarity and to create some efficiencies that weren’t there before.”
Dugan pointed out that the new rules do not prohibit an accuser from filing a complaint in court.
“It doesn’t prohibit anybody from taking other avenues to proceed on something that they feel that they’ve been harassed,” he said.
The state Legislature has previously exempted itself from Georgia’s open records laws, so complaints, emails and other documents are not available to the public.
In fact, the new Senate rules appear to further restrict transparency in the complaint process.
The changes allow the Senate Ethics Committee to establish procedures to keep information confidential and enable the committee to investigate any leaks. Violation of the confidentiality procedures could lead to sanctions, fines or other sanctions deemed appropriate by the committee.
Previous Allegations, And Other Rule Changes
Last March, a longtime lobbyist filed an official complaint in the Legislature alleging then-Republican Sen. David Shafer demanded sexual favors for helping her get a bill passed in 2011.
In that case, the Senate Ethics Committee later made public it had dismissed the complaint against Shafer. He was a top candidate for lieutenant governor at the time.
The Ethics Committee was made up of 12 members, including nine Republicans and three Democrats.
The meeting where they voted to dismiss the complaint against the lawmaker was not open to the public.
An outside attorney, in a report, wrote that the evidence leaned in Shafer’s favor.
The new Senate rules shrink the Judiciary Committee from 12 to 10 members and grant more power to the already powerful Rules Committee to amend legislation before it gets a vote on the chamber floor.
Also under the new rules, the use of cameras is banned in the Senate gallery, where the public can observe the chamber while it’s in session.
“The President shall have power to take any action deemed necessary to maintain decorum in the Senate chamber, the Senate lobbies, the Senate gallery, and the immediate environs of the Senate,” the new rules read. They do not define “immediate environs.”
Democratic State Sen. Nikema Williams was arrested in the state Capitol building late last year during a protest over voting access and the 2018 gubernatorial election.
Democrats complained on Monday, the first day of the legislative session, that they had little time to review the Senate rule changes, to which Republicans provided no public apology or explanation.
“This,” Republican Sen. Dugan quipped in the midst of debate over the rule changes, “has started off well.”