Gov. John Bel Edwards says he never had reason to suspect that a former top aide would face allegations of sexual harassment, despite similar claims from a decade ago.
During a year-end news conference at the Governor's Mansion on Wednesday, Edwards said he is taking the allegations that led deputy chief of staff Johnny Anderson to resign in November "very seriously." Anderson has denied wrongdoing and an internal investigation is ongoing.
"In my years of knowing Johnny, which go back to 2011, I never heard or saw anything directly or indirectly that suggested to me that there would be any problem of this type," Edwards said.
But at least half a dozen female Southern University employees complained in 2006 that Anderson had sexually harassed them while he was the chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors. He was also then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco's assistant chief of staff at the time.
"They were allegations and they had been investigated by Southern without any finding that he had committed any of those allegations," Edwards said. "And he denied them."
Court records show that at least one of the women reached a settlement agreement with the university system regarding her harassment claims. It's unclear whether any others did.
The state has hired an outside attorney in anticipation of a lawsuit related to the latest allegations.
An independent investigation, launched by Blanco, ultimately fizzled amid claims that the university did not cooperate with the outside attorney brought in to look into them.
The latest allegations, lodged by a woman who also worked in the governor's office at the time, come amid a growing national conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct that has led to the resignation of high-profile men across several industries and state Capitols across the country.
Edwards, who spent eight years in the Louisiana Legislature before he was elected governor, has launched a task force to examine state sexual harassment policies and separate reviews are being conducted by legislators and the state legislative auditor.
"I would say we have a problem in government just like anywhere else," Edwards said, noting that the media has also been subject to the recent wave of harassment reports. "There simply is no place for sexual harassment in the workplace in Louisiana whether it's in the public sector or private sector."
Anderson's resignation is the second controversy that has befallen a member of Edwards' inner circle this year.
A scathing audit released this month has raised questions about former State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson's reported penchant for freebies – something that Edwards said during his news conference likely led to Edmonson's unexpected retirement in March.
Both Anderson and Edmonson were appointed to their posts by Edwards during his transition period before taking office in January 2016.
The audit highlights Edmonson's use of state resources and official travel for personal business. Edmonson has said he will respond to the report next month.
On at least one of the points raised, Edwards has defended Edmonson.
Edwards said he spoke during the transition to Edmonson, who had been the head of State Police under Edwards' predecessor, about his living arrangements at a state compound – one of the key issues raised in the auditor's report.
"I'm less than convinced that the legislative auditor got it right relative to the use of the residence," Edwards said. "I told him to stay in the residence because that's the best place for him to be if he's going to command the State Police."
"The rest of it is obviously very concerning," Edwards added.
Despite those setbacks and a looming $1 billion-plus shortfall that the state faces in just six months, Edwards said during other parts of the news conference that he remains "extremely optimistic" about Louisiana's future half-way through his first term in office.
"I can unequivocally state that we have made tremendous progress over the course of the year in stabilizing state government and making sure that we are more adequately and responsibly funding critical priorities," he said. "We're seeing tangible benefits on every front from those efforts."
Unemployment is down, the insured rate is up and the state budget has shown signs of stabilization for the first time in nearly a decade, he said.
Edwards announced plans to run for re-election in 2019 early in his first year in office. Several Louisiana Republicans are eyeing the possibility of taking back the Governor's Mansion in a deeply conservative state, though no one has announced a campaign against Edwards, who polls show remains popular in the state.
Edwards has called five special sessions since taking office – all to shore up the state's finances.
He says he will call another in February if he and lawmakers reach a tentative agreement by Jan. 19 on how to address the next "fiscal cliff" that the state faces in the coming budget cycle when temporary tax measures expire on June 30.
He and House Republican leaders remain at odds over the best budget solution, though both sides have recently expressed optimism.
"I will be as flexible as I can be and as open-minded as I can be in order to be successful," Edwards said.