troyexpel61.021617.jpg

Jill Craft, attorney for Louisiana state Sen. Troy Brown, right, D-Napoleonville, answers questions from reporters outside the Louisiana Senate Chamber, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, after an initial 32-Senator committee hearing into an historic effort to discipline one of its own, Brown, for pleading no contest twice in a four-month period to misdemeanor domestic violence charges in two separate incidents involving battery on women.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

With all the recent disclosures of bad behavior by powerful men, it was only a matter of time before sexual harassment allegations came to Louisiana government.

Gov. John Bel Edwards claims a “zero tolerance” of misbehavior and launched an investigation within an hour of learning of a grievance against Deputy Chief of Staff Johnny Anderson on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Anderson denied the claims and then resigned.

This was not the first accusation against Anderson. He was accused in 2006 of sexually harassing women at Southern University while he was chairman of Southern’s Board of Supervisors and on the staff of Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Anderson denied those allegations. Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo said last week Anderson came "highly recommended" and pointed out that two separate investigations into those claims came to “no conclusion of any wrongdoing.”

But this latest investigatory process went opaque almost immediately when the Edwards’ administration wouldn’t describe what form the probe would take. Throughout the week, administration officials dodged questions like: Who is doing the investigating? Will testimony be taken? What’s the timeline?

Finally, the administration Friday night said the Division of Administration would look into the matter and contracted with Vicki M. Crochet to defend, should any litigation arise from the incident. She specializes in employment law from the employers’ perspective and is a partner in Baton Rouge’s Taylor Porter law firm.

Meanwhile, lawmakers asked the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to study what sexual harassment policies need to be updated.

Here’s the secret: Louisiana has no laws specifically governing sexual harassment in state government. The second part of that secret is that the policies for the Louisiana House and Senate are only for the staff.

Across state government, each agency has its own policy tied to a 40-year-old federal law. Few policies are alike.

“It’s not clear what legally constitutes harassment. There’s no set standard. Furthermore, there are no set procedures,” said state Sen. Regina Barrow, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose Senate Select Committee on Women and Children is scheduled to begin an inquiry on Friday.

Until recently the Louisiana Legislature has been an “all boy’s club,” Barrow said. Today, 15.3 percent of the 144 legislators are women, a ratio that lags all but a half-dozen states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nationally, the average is 24.9 percent.

Still, the number of women is enough that the days when male lawmakers would pat women on their bottoms then ask them out for bourbon and a steak are behind us, Barrow said.

“Now we’re in a different time and we have more women represented who are not accepting of what once was a given,” Barrow said. “Now there needs to be some certainty in our policy.”

Senate Rule 18.2 says such behavior “will not be tolerated.”

The House has no such rules. But its Policy and Procedure Manual for full-time employees — legislators are considered part-timers — have detailed descriptions of unacceptable behavior: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors” implying submission is necessary to stay employed, or to advance, or that interferes with performance.

House employees can report infractions to the Office of Human Resources, which conducts an investigation, then reports its findings to the Speaker of the House, who makes the decision on what to do. The whole thing from the filing of a complaint to disposition “shall occur within 30 working days.”

House Clerk Butch Speer said only a handful of complaints — some involving legislators — have been filed since the policy was enacted about 10 years ago. He wouldn’t say who and couldn’t say for sure how many, partly for privacy concerns, mostly because the matters are officially remembered only in employee files. But Speer could say that nobody has been terminated, no allegations of quid pro quo — sex as a condition for employment or advancement — have been reported, and no settlement monies have been paid.

In contrast, the Louisiana State Police’s definition includes unwelcome flirtation and “displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures or drawings.” Allegations should be reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity officer or the assistant secretary in the agency’s Office of Legal Affairs or to the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights. Any supervisor who receives a complaint “shall refer” the complainant to that chain.

Consolidating the various policies into one umbrella law would require the Legislature to look at what other states have done, said state Rep. Mike Danahay, who chairs the House & Governmental Affairs Committee that would hear any legislation addressing sexual harassment in a government workplace.

“Definitely, we’d like to have something more consistent in place,” the Sulphur Democrat said.

Jill Craft, a Baton Rouge lawyer specializing in employment law from the plaintiffs’ perspective, says her first step when representing women who have made allegations is to determine how to apply what happened to the employing agency’s particular set of procedures. They’re all different, so having a single mechanism that applies to all of state government would overcome a lot of frustration and could sidetrack litigation.

“Mostly, they just want to be left alone,” Craft said of her clients. “If you’re at all serious about zero tolerance, then it makes sense to have a statewide policy that at least says what you won’t tolerate.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.