Republicans are hoping to bring down the only Democratic governor in the Deep South with claims that incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards ignored a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful aide whose history included similar allegations more than a decade ago that tarnished Louisiana's last Democratic governor.

Saying he didn’t want to be a distraction, Johnny Anderson, Edwards' deputy chief of staff, quit in November 2017 within a few hours of Executive Counsel Matthew Block hearing of Juanita Washington’s allegations from a third party.

Washington said Anderson forced her to have oral sex with him and that he fondled her. She said the harassment went on for nearly a year because she feared for her job. When it became inconvenient for him, Anderson forced her to resign, Washington said. Anderson denies the allegations, but the state paid $108,000 to settle a possible lawsuit.

Edwards has been hammered for nearly a week with radio and television ads, tweets, blog posts, and mass emails for hiring Anderson, who had been under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations a decade earlier when he was a top aide to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Washington appeared in a striking TV ad produced by Truth in Politics and released last week that criticizes Edwards for hiring of Anderson, despite allegations of sexual harassment made a decade prior at Southern University.

“They got very nervous earlier in the week because several polls showed me in the mid-50s. They got nervous and desperate,” Edwards told The Advocate over the weekend. “She wants people to believe, apparently, by the way they did the ad, that she lost her job because she made the complaint. That is really false and misleading.”

Edwards faces two well-funded Republicans, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, and three others in Saturday’s primary. If Edwards fails to win outright Saturday with at least 50% of the vote, he will face either Rispone or Abraham in a Nov. 16 runoff.

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Edwards faces two well-funded Republicans, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, and three others in Saturday’s primary. (File/Brad Bowie)

On Tuesday, Truth in Politics, whose co-founder, Lane Grigsby is a close ally of Rispone, held a press conference with Washington in front of the courthouse in Baton Rouge to personally accuse Edwards of ignoring victims of sexual harassment and to publicize the filing of a lawsuit seeking the release of thousands of documents from the Governor’s Office. She called on Edwards to apologize to her and accused his campaign of working to "distort" what happened to her. 

"I will not be silenced anymore," said Washington, who first detailed her allegations last year. "Governor: stop the lies. Tell your people to stop the cover up and stop attacking me."  

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Juanita Washington, whose 2017 sexual harassment allegations have taken center stage in governor's election, speaks to reporters on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in front of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. 

Sexually explicit text messages between Washington and Anderson were released that seem to indicate the relationship was consensual. Washington told The Advocate she was doing what she had to do to take care of her elderly parents and daughter by keeping her job and its insurance benefits.

By the end of Tuesday, the two sides were hurling claims and counter claims at each other, nit-picking distinctions over picayune points.

Washington said Tuesday morning the Edwards’ administration refused to give her job back after Anderson resigned. That claim was flatly denied Tuesday afternoon by Tina Vanichchagorn, executive counsel for Edwards' administration, during another press conference held by women supporting the governor's handling of Washington's case.

"After the allegations were brought to light and after Mr. Anderson was no longer employed with our office, Ms. Washington was given the opportunity to withdraw her resignation and to continue her employment with our office. She declined to do that," Vanichchagorn said. 

Anderson, a former chief of staff for then-Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Cleo Fields, provides white politicians connections to black leaders, particularly in Baton Rouge, a city with stark geographic divides by race. He was chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors and Blanco’s deputy chief of staff when then-Southern University System President Ralph Slaughter was presented with allegations by nine employees and students who claimed Anderson had sexually harassed them.

Asked during a recent debate between gubernatorial candidates why Edwards hired Anderson given his history, the governor responded: “Mr. Anderson was hired because the investigations in Southern University actually exonerated him.”

“Exonerated” was the word Anderson used at the time. But that’s not the term used by the Baton Rouge lawyer hired by Blanco to look into the matter.

“Did my investigation exonerate Mr. Anderson?” Mark Falcon said upon release of his report in April 2007, adding that stonewalling by Slaughter prevented him from proving Anderson’s guilt or innocence. “I can’t say that because I don’t know what the allegations are.”

Slaughter felt he couldn't reveal the testimony he gave to a federal grand jury.

Actually, no wrongdoing was found in two investigations – Falcon’s one for the governor and one ordered by the Southern University Board.

But a couple of the alleged victims did testify in federal court before Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph Tyson, a well-respected jurist who also taught constitutional law at Southern, during a pretrial hearing to throw out Slaughter’s lawsuit seeking protection as whistleblower. Slaughter’s attorney, Jill Craft, who also represented Washington, said the Southern Board wanted to make Slaughter the fall guy and protect Anderson.

Linda Carr, a Southern internal auditor, testified July 2007 in federal court that Anderson drove up to her on campus and “asked me if I needed a boyfriend like him.”

Flustered, Carr said “no.” Anderson persisted and she kept refusing. A year later, Carr said she decided not to apply for a promotion because Anderson said she “didn’t have the skills of abilities to do the job.”

Cynthia Robinson, a Southern alumni affairs secretary, testified Anderson once came into her building and “He pulled me close and tried to kiss me on my lips, but I turned my head.”

Then, at a 2006 conference in Philadelphia, Robinson said, “He told me I had not been giving the attention he deserves.”

Tyson, now deceased, ruled in July 2007 that based on the “uncontradicted testimony” of Carr and Robinson, enough evidence was presented to find Slaughter could be considered a whistleblower and that his lawsuit could continue to trial. The 28-page order, while unflattering to Anderson, was aimed at whether Slaughter’s lawsuit should be dismissed and not a definitive decision on the validity of the allegations. Anderson steadfastly denied the allegations.

The lawsuit was settled when Southern agreed to extend Slaughter’s contract two more years at a substantially higher salary. He was fired at the end of the two years as were a number of officials who supported him. But the allegations against Anderson touched off some half dozen lawsuits that employed just about all the major lawyers in Baton Rouge at one time or another.

Washington said Tuesday she was unaware of Anderson’s history. Colleagues told her and advised her to pretend to have a boyfriend in hopes of tamping down Anderson’s ardor.

He texted her that seeming to be in another relationship would cover their affair. “That’s easy,” she replied, “I got a great person for that role. I post my status on (FaceBook) ‘in relationship’ on purpose a week ago.”

When Anderson tired of the relationship, she said he told her that Executive Counsel Block was investigating a trip she had taken as a possible ethics violation, which was untrue. He promised to find her another job and helped her write a resignation letter, Washington said.

In the meantime, she hired Jill Craft, who has extensive experience with sexual harassment cases, and who in recent days endorsed Edwards as part of the governor's campaign response to the controversy. She complimented Edwards for ordering all state agencies to enact easy-to-follow procedures for allowing victims to make their harassment known without fear of retribution and requiring education of all state employees as a result of the Washington case.

"The cause of eradicating sexual harassment in this state and this country is not some soap box somebody can jump on and jump off when it's convenient for them. It takes commitment, it's a long-term commitment and i have been litigating these cases for nearly 30 years," Craft said during Tuesday's press conference of women supporting the governor. "The reason i decided to endorse Gov. Edwards is because he clearly demonstrates that commitment. It's not some soapbox for him."

IN November 2017, Craft phoned Block looking for information about Washington's claims and Anderson resigned a few hours later.

Washington said that after his resignation she became something of an unperson in the Governor’s Office. Nobody spoke to her. She lunched alone. “They even rescinded by Christmas Party invitation,” Washington said.

Anderson did not return calls Tuesday.

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards makes key cabinet appointments, including DOTD chief _lowres (copy) (copy)

Johnny Anderson has denied Juanita Washington's allegations, but the state paid $108,000 to settle a possible lawsuit. (File/Hilary Scheinuk)

But he posted a statement on his Facebook page soon after the Republican Governors’ Association ran its first commercial.

“Those few hypocritical rich Republican bastards and some others who like to pass judgement with just a part of a story ... I’m far from perfect, but their aim of trying to destroy me as recreation, fun and game will come back in their own lives!,” Anderson wrote. “What this tells us all who looks like me, is that when they stoop this low, we need to VOTE like never before!!”

Tyler Bridges of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.