Politics

Women Say They Fear Speaking Out About Sexual Misconduct In Ga. Legislature

The Georgia Legislature’s current sexual harassment policies are under review by a special subcommittee made up of six legislative leaders.
The Georgia Legislature’s current sexual harassment policies are under review by a special subcommittee made up of six legislative leaders.
Credit Brenna Beech / WABE
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There have been allegations of sexual assault and harassment against at least 40 male legislators in 20 state Capitols around the country, according to one count. Many women have spoken about their experiences in the wake of public accusations against high-profile, powerful men like film producer Harvey Weinstein and U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

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In Georgia, even as a special subcommittee reviews the state Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, women say they are scared to speak publicly, or at all.

Four women, including lobbyists and lawmakers, described incidents of harassment and assault to WABE, but they said they fear retribution or further abuse. For this reason, WABE has agreed to keep their identities private. The women said speaking out or naming alleged assailants would damage their careers.

One woman, who worked in the Georgia statehouse from the mid ’90s until the current decade, said she lost count of how many times male lawmakers stuck a hand under her jacket or grabbed her by the waist to pull her against them.

She remembers a lawmaker cornering her in a stairwell and forcibly kissing her on the mouth, and another lawmaker insinuating the need for sexual favors as a sort of payment after he helped secure state budget funding for a particular program.

“I worry that if I spoke out, legislators would try to undermine my claims by citing the countless instances when I smiled, laughed and seemed to play along with their behavior,” she said. “That was not consent — it was the only way we could maintain our relationships with legislators so that we could get things done at the Capitol.”

In another instance, a woman who spoke to WABE said she was attending a committee meeting as part of her responsibilities at the Capitol. The woman said a committee member texted her to say he wanted to take a shower with her.

That text exchange took place via the Blackberry PIN message program, where messages were stored on individual devices and not the Internet.

“Legislators loved communicating this way because there was no record of the texts,” the woman said.

She said she no longer has her Blackberry.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said, “sexual harassment in the political world is not over,” and she understands the fear of going public due to personal and professional consequences.

“Speaking up or not speaking up, both decisions carry risk,” said Oliver, who was first elected to the Georgia House in 1987. “I would not counsel someone what they should do. I’m just supportive of a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment — owning her own story, making her own decision about what to say publicly. I’m fairly confident that if she makes an allegation of sexual harassment or sexual assault, there will be pushback.”

Oliver encouraged women who have experienced assault or harassment to seek counsel and support. If they do choose to speak publicly about any incidents, Oliver said, it must be thought out.

“What is their professional goal? What’s their plan for personal safety? What’s their plan for professional reputation? It must be a considered decision, and it must be one where a woman is supported in whatever decision she makes,” Oliver said.

The Georgia Legislature’s current sexual harassment policies are under review by a special subcommittee made up of six legislative leaders: five men, chaired by one woman. House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the second-ranking member in that chamber, is the committee’s leader. Labor and employment lawyer Rashwanda Pinchback Dixon is reviewing the policies and will make recommendations to the special subcommittee.

“Our goal has been, and continues to be, to create and maintain a safe and supportive work environment for members and staff,” said Jones in an emailed statement. She said as chair of the special subcommittee “my role is to lead the review and recommend revisions to assure they are clear and adequate with the advice of excellent outside counsel. That review is underway and will be both thorough and expeditious.”

Current rules enable legislators, staff, aides and interns to file harassment or misconduct complaints with secretaries in either chamber, who then refer the case to ethics committees in the House or Senate. Those committees include members of both parties but are controlled by whichever party is in the majority.

In both the House and Senate, the committees appear to have broad leeway as to how complaints are handled, including whether the complaints should be made public.