Georgia Senate weakens internal harassment investigations

As one of his first acts after being sworn in as Georgia governor, Republican Brian Kemp issued an executive order Monday strengthening and standardizing sexual harassment reporting processes across state agencies and implementing mandatory sexual harassment training for agency employees.

That same day, the state Senate changed its rules by placing a two-year limit on an accuser's ability to bring misconduct claims against Senators and members of their staff. The new rules also allow for an internal investigative committee to recommend sanctions - including a fine - for bringing claims found to be "frivolous."

The opposing messages from Georgia's governor and its Senate come as state governments across the country try to grapple with how to appropriately respond to the #MeToo movement that has brought down powerful men accused of sexual harassment and assault across entertainment, media and politics.

Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford slammed the rule changes on the Senate floor Tuesday.

"We need these rules and regulations," Unterman said. "We desperately need them to protect people, in particular women and women who sit in this body."

In a speech that also discussed her recent removal as chair of the powerful Senate Health Committee, Unterman said that she had personally been sexually harassed.

"In the 29 years I've been elected, I have never had sexual harassment against me," Unterman said. "But I'm here to tell you, in the last couple of weeks, I have had sexual harassment against me. And I know now personally what it feels like."

Unterman did not say who allegedly harassed her or elaborate on the circumstances, but said she would reveal more in the coming days. She declined a request for comment through the Senate Press Office.

The vote to adopt the new Senate rules was largely split along partisan lines, with Democrats voting against the changes and Republicans voting for them. Unterman was the sole Republican to vote against the change.

In a statement posted on Twitter Tuesday night, Kemp said his executive order "makes it clear that we will not tolerate sexual harassment in state government." He did not mention the Senate rule change.

The changes come after a former Senate leader, Republican David Shafer, was accused of sexual harassment last year by a lobbyist whose allegations dated back to 2011. Shafer lost his 2018 GOP primary campaign for lieutenant governor and the Senate eventually dismissed the complaint.

While introducing the rule change Monday, Republican Sen. Mike Dugan of Carrollton said the process was only an internal investigating mechanism within the Senate and did not stop victims from pursuing other avenues such as in court.

As part of the new rules, a Senate investigative committee will only look into complaints made within two years of the alleged misconduct.

The committee will not be allowed to investigate a complaint if the accused party is currently running for elected office.

Also, the burden of proof that must be met to move an investigation forward has been raised from "reasonable grounds" to "substantial credible evidence."

Misconduct deemed by the committee to be "inadvertent, technical" or minor can now be dismissed with a "private letter of admonition which shall not be considered discipline."

Additionally, an accuser must keep the accusation confidential or the complaint will be dismissed and they could face sanctions.