Three days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a longtime lobbyist had accused a powerful state senator of sexual harassment, the General Assembly’s lawyer said it didn’t have to publicly release any information about such complaints.
The AJC filed an Open Records Act request Thursday asking for any information on possible sexual harassment complaints involving the Georgia Senate or its staff, settlements paid out and documentation about how complaints could be filed and handled.
Legislative Counsel David Bundrick responded that the General Assembly “is not an agency” of the state and “not subject to Georgia laws pertaining to open records.”
Because of big increases in the number of major sexual harassment accusations against celebrities and politicians last fall, Georgia lawmakers began reviewing their policies for dealing with those cases.
But the General Assembly — which receives more than $40 million a year in taxpayer money to operate — has long exempted itself from the Open Records Act. And House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, acknowledged last fall to the AJC that such an exemption would apply to the Legislature’s dealings on any sexual harassment cases.
The governor’s office and state agencies have typically complied with such records requests.
Richard T. Griffiths, the president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the case is “precisely why the state Legislature should have never exempted itself from the open records law.”
“This is an issue that is part of the national dialogue, with a national conversation, with a national scope where the public is holding people accountable,” he said, adding that Georgians should be told whether there have been sexual harassment settlements and how much taxpayer money went into settling the cases.
“The Legislature may have exempted itself from having to disclose this,” he said, “but they also have a moral responsibility to disclose that information to the public.”
Bundrick’s response came after the AJC independently obtained a sexual harassment complaint filed by a veteran statehouse lobbyist against state Sen. David Shafer, a leading Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, accusing him of retaliating against her after she turned back his advances.
The complaint was filed with the Senate Clerk’s Office a week ago. When asked about it Friday, Georgia Senate Clerk David Cook said, “If I was (aware of it), I couldn’t comment on it.”
Shafer said, “This false complaint is about politics, not the truth,” and he called the lobbyist “a 15-minute, attention-seeking wannabe trying to settle an old score.”
The lobbyist, a 20-year Capitol veteran, said Shafer retaliated against her and harassed her after helping her get a bill passed in 2011. The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
In the complaint, she accused Shafer of repeatedly asking her to show him her breasts as a reward for helping her pass her bill. She also said he asked that they meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to “spoon naked.”
The complaint says the lobbyist reported Shafer’s behavior to several people, including leaders in the Legislature.
Shafer said he went out of his way to avoid being alone with the lobbyist and that she had a history of making things up.
Lawmakers say the policy of not releasing information on complaints protects both the person filing the allegation and the accused legislator. Some, including Shafer, told the AJC that such filings can be designed to do serious political damage to the accused.
A similar argument has been made by politicians for years about the filing of ethics complaints — accusations of campaign finance irregularities — during election years.
Ralston told the AJC late last year that there have been no sexual harassment complaints filed with his office involving lawmakers or lobbyists since he took over the chamber in 2010. He acknowledged, under the General Assembly’s interpretation of the Open Records Act, that there is no way for the public to verify that.
House and Senate leaders can release information if they want to, and often do so. For instance, journalists asking to look at reports on how lawmakers spend their expense allowances generally have to file an Open Records Act request to see the documents, but they are made available.
The House and sometimes the Senate put out meeting agendas in advance, and both chambers post their state budget plans on the General Assembly website after they have been approved by their appropriations committees.