At least two reviews are underway to examine whether Louisiana state government needs to improve its sexual harassment policies, as Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration investigates misconduct claims against a former top aide.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, has asked the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to look into hiring policies and policies in place to discourage harassment. Hewitt, in a letter sent to the legislative oversight agency this week, cited the recent resignation of Johnny Anderson, Edwards' former deputy chief of staff who is facing sexual harassment allegations.
Separately, the Louisiana Legislature's Women's Caucus, set out earlier this month on its own review of how the state Legislature handles accusations of misconducts and the policies that are in place. Louisiana Women's Policy & Research Commission is also reviewing state government policies regarding harassment outside of the legislative branch.
"There's been some work that's been happening on this already," said Rep. Helena Moreno, Women's Caucus chair and a New Orleans Democrat. "The more hands on deck we have toward making these policies a model for the rest of the country -- I'm all for it."
The reviews come during what has become a national deluge of high-profile men facing accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct.
Anderson, who previously faced harassment allegations during a previous administration in 2007, has denied the accusations against him. He is the highest-profile such case to hit state government here since a wave of similar allegations has rocked the country this fall.
"Sexual harassment has become an issue nationally and with the recent news of Mr. Anderson, who was part of the governor's executive staff, it seemed like there were a lot of unanswered questions," Hewitt said of her decision to bring in the Legislative Auditor to review. She has specifically asked for information on background research procedures undertaken on prospective employees, statistics from sexual harassment claims made in the past five years, a review of sexual harassment training and policies compared to other states and recommendations for improving how the state handles harassment. "The news of Mr. Anderson, I think really pushed me to want to take action. I found it shocking that the governor's office would hire someone with this history."
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The governor's office has defended it's response to the latest allegation against Anderson. Deputy chief of staff Richard Carbo said that an investigation, which is still ongoing despite his resignation, was launched "an hour" after it was first brought to the administration's attention.
"Given how quickly the governor acted -- as soon as we found out about these claims -- shows that he has zero tolerance for this and will do what it takes to eliminate through his administration," Carbo said.
Chief of staff Mark Cooper, in a statement that was released in response to Hewitt's request for a review, said that Democrat Edwards' administration supports the effort and hopes that it extends to all parts of state government, and not just the executive branch.
State Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat who has been in the Legislature for nearly a decade, said she hopes any review will be comprehensive -- from appointees to full-time workers to part-time staff.
"It's risen to the top in just the past few months. It's become a hot button for a lot of states to review their policies," she said. "I think we are definitely going to be looking at our policies and be able to put the right ones in place to protect individuals whether they are male or female."
The initial dive into legislative policies was particularly concerning, Moreno said. Because the state policy only applies to full time workers, it doesn't cover state legislators, who are considered part-time. It also doesn't address the dozens of lobbyists, reporters and others who come to the Capitol for work every day.
The Senate has a short policy saying that members shouldn't harass other members, but it doesn't explicitly outline ramifications. The House doesn't address the issue, Moreno said.
"Obviously there is a lot of room for improvement," she said.
Sen. Dale Erdy, R-Livingston, sponsored a resolution in 2012 to require that agencies provide sexual harassment education to all public officials and their employees.
"I think it was something that was way overdue with state government," Erdy said. "Large corporations and even smaller corporations had official sexual harassment prevention courses for their employees -- I just thought we should bring the state up to the same level of those corporations."
He said he would back efforts to further make workplace safer for state employees.
"I think it was worthy of discussion back in 2012 and obviously it's worthy of discussion today with all of the harassment alleged incidences that we see in today's times," he said.
Recent weeks have seen the downfall of several public figures who have faced highly-documented sexual harassment or misconduct allegations including Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K. and news anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, among many others.
Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, and Sen. Al Franken, a D-Minnesota, have faced calls to resign, though so far remain in their positions in Washington. And Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Alabama's open U.S. Senate seat, has been called upon to leave the race.
That has sparked a broader movement that has made it easier for more people who have been subjected to harassment to come forward, Moreno said.
"My takeaway is that whether it's a bank or a law firm or a Legislature, for many years women have just ignored bad behavior because they didn't think they really had any recourse or if they didn't like what was going on they would go to another room," she said.
Moreno and other lawmakers interviewed for this story said that they had not witnessed obvious incidences of sexual harassment nor felt that they had personally been victims of mistreatment.
But the Legislature hasn't been immune from what some have deemed bawdy behavior.
Just last year, Louisiana made national headlines after a state House member, during a discussion about anti-human trafficking legislation, proposed on the chamber's floor that the bill be amended to set restrictions on the age and weight of strippers. That was followed by the appearance of a bikini-themed birthday cake, that was then smashed by a female state senator.
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"If anything has happened, no one has told any of us that it's gone forward," Smith said, but she added that oftentimes such matters are treated as protected personnel issues.
Smith said she supports such cases going through human resources privately.
Hewitt, a former engineering executive who has drawn speculation that she may mount a bid for governor, said she hopes to be able to shed some light on the issue and protect victims and those who may be accused of inappropriate behavior.
"It has not affected me, but I do know that it exists in the workplace everywhere," she said. "I want to make sure that we have protections for people who feel like they want to report it and that the accused have due process."
"Everyone has the right to go to work in a safe place that is free from sexual harassment, and I think it's part of my job as a legislator to make sure that we have that kind of environment in state government," she added.
More research should be done into the appointment of people to high-level government positions and boards and commissions, Hewitt said.
"If the governor really has a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment why would he put the women there at risk by hiring someone with past allegations?" she said.
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