Tennessee statehouse an outlier in not releasing sex harassment data

The Tennessee General Assembly is the most secretive state agency when it comes to providing information about sexual harassment in state government, according to a three-month Tennessean analysis that is part of an ongoing investigation related to disgraced ex-lawmaker Jeremy Durham.

The Tennessean requested raw data about the number of sexual harassment complaints filed since 2010 from 45 state agencies and departments, including the state legislature. Only the General Assembly did not provide any data.

That poses a problem for legislative leaders who say the actions of Durham, the lawmaker recently expelled in light of myriad sexual misconduct allegations, are not demonstrative of the state Capitol culture.

"The speaker certainly hopes all state employees feel comfortable reporting any harassment that may occur in the workplace. The General Assembly does not implement Executive and Judicial Branch policies," said Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Harwell, R-Nashville, retiring Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and many others called Durham a bad apple in an otherwise safe environment.

But because the legislature won't release the number of complaints it has received, and how those complaints were resolved, there is no way any lawmaker or citizen can understand whether the legislature has a sexual harassment problem.

The Tennessean's analysis found more than 460 sexual harassment complaints have been filed since 2010. While that encompasses a fraction of the roughly 40,000 people working for state government, it still represents more than one complaint filed every week for more than six years.

Connie Ridley, the director of legislative administration, has refused to provide any information about complaints. But the Tennessee Department of Human Resources acknowledges that all complaints are public record.

The department's policy on investigations of illegal discrimination and harassment allegations includes a standardized form for receiving all complaints. The top of that form cites Tennessee code that states "all state ... records ... shall at all times, during business hours, be opened for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse such right of inspection any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law."

Ridley has repeatedly cited legislative policy when refusing to provide raw data about previous complaints or acknowledging the existence of any investigations.

The Tennessean's ongoing investigation noted in January that several experts determined the legislature's previous sexual harassment policy was mired in secrecy.

The General Assembly adopted a new policy in July, but some of those same secrecy issues remain. If an employee or lawmaker sexually harasses someone, a public record of their punishment will be included in their personnel file. Personnel files for lawmakers and legislative employees are public records. But there will be no notice of when that investigation is completed or when any findings are made public.

The Tennessean has regularly requested the findings of any investigations by the state legislature since the implementation of the new policy, but Ridley has rejected those requests as too broad. Ridley has either provided no information or ignored requests for findings of sexual harassment by specific lawmakers.

Ridley also has determined that the policy does not apply retroactively, and will not release the outcomes of any sexual harassment investigations in the past.

Human resources experts have said public consequences for sexual harassing someone are an important facet of ensuring a safe work environment. The special committee created to examine the sexual harassment policy at the statehouse suggested releasing raw data every year. But that was not included in the policy eventually adopted by Harwell and Ramsey.

"Sexual harassment cannot be effectively combated without complete confidentiality of complaints. If strict confidentiality is not respected, complainants will not come forward and sexual harassers will continue to offend," Ramsey said in a statement from a spokesman.

Although Ramsey did not specify what "complete confidentiality" means, almost all of the departments surveyed by The Tennessean provided information about specific sexual harassment complaints.

There are questions as to whether the legislature is investigating allegations that a lawmaker, identified in a scathing attorney general’s report as Rep. Jane Doe #33, potentially fired a former employee who was sexually harassed by Durham as a form of retaliation. Ridley and Harwell have repeatedly declined to say whether an investigation is underway or warranted.

The Tennessean does not identify victims of sexual harassment.

This story originally appeared on The Tennessean’s website.


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