Her boss at the agricultural lab touched her lower back so much, she dreaded going to work.
In the emergency management office, women were subjected to a supervisor’s repeated crude comments about sex, as well as shoulder rubs and his fingers in their hair.
At the home mortgage office, a man rubbed the lower back and upper buttocks of a woman working late — marking the third time a female co-worker accused the man of unwanted touching.
In the #MeToo era, with many employers on high alert to sexual harassment, reports of such behavior could have offenders out of a job.
Not these three men — all of whom still work for the state of Georgia.
Does the state government have a significant sexual harassment problem? An out-of-control culture that fosters egregious treatment of workers, leaving offenders in place to find other targets?
State officials don’t know.
That’s because, despite heightened attention across the nation on sexual harassment, Georgia’s government has little grip on the problem within its own ranks, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
The state has no consistent system for investigating complaints. It can’t even say how many of its nearly 70,000 employees have filed complaints in recent years because it has no centralized system for tracking sexual harassment.
In fact, it’s easier to find statistics on how sexual harassment affects state prisoners than how it affects state employees.
Georgia leaves it up to each department and agency to decide how to address misconduct. To evaluate how that works, the AJC asked Georgia executive agencies for five years’ worth of complaints. In reviewing nearly 200 from the agencies that provided records, the newspaper found a scattershot system, with disparate treatment for victims and perpetrators from one agency to the next, and even within agencies.
Some harassers feel the full brunt of discipline, while others accused of the same kinds of abhorrent behaviors get only a talking-to. In some departments, even rampant misconduct can go unchecked.
“We kid and cut up,” a human resources officer for Pardons and Paroles reportedly told a woman who complained about a male co-worker’s lewd comment when she bent over to pick up a file.
The AJC attempted to contact all parties named in the the public records to better understand how the state system does or doesn’t work. The newspaper does not name alleged victims without their consent. Reporters made multiple attempts to locate and solicit comments from those accused of harassment.
In Behavioral Health, Jammie Duvall was effectively driven out of her job at a state mental hospital last year by a male co-worker’s incessant harassment. Duvall’s account of the crude and profane comments she endured from her co-worker might be hard to believe had investigators not eventually gathered similar accounts from other workers.
“Have you ever had your (expletive) pounded so hard you blacked out?” he asked her, according to her handwritten complaint. He told anatomically explicit stories of sex. He said he liked married women because he can “(expletive) them and leave them.”
“It was degrading. It was humiliating,” Duvall said. “I cried all the time.”
She reported her concerns, but like many cases examined by the AJC, Duvall’s immediate supervisor deflected the complaint back.
“What do you want me to do about it?” her supervisor asked.
She wound up quitting.
“Everybody was friends with him,” Duvall said. “And it just made it really rough working there.”
The AJC was unable to reach Duvall’s alleged harasser, who was eventually fired.
Such cases show the high cost of sexual harassment in the workplace. It can demoralize workers and derail careers. But in government it also hits taxpayers by diminishing productivity, jacking up the costs of physical and mental health, and creating unnecessary turnover, human resources experts told the AJC.
“Taxpayers want government employees to be focusing on their jobs, not trying to avoid harassers and taking leave because of physical and psychological impacts from this sort of behavior,” said Elaine Herskowitz, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff attorney who’s now a private consultant and investigator.
Accounts of sexual harassment within Georgia government run the gamut: Bosses demanding sexual favors from subordinates. Supervisors making grossly inappropriate comments. Rank-and-file workers relentlessly propositioning co-workers or bullying them with sexually explicit conversation.
The state’s personnel rules and regulations define sexual harassment as “unwanted sexual attention of a persistent or offensive nature made by a person who knows, or reasonably should know, that such attention is unwanted.” The regulations also spell out that certain types of harassment are “specifically prohibited,” such as pressuring employees to engage in sexual activity and “touching another employee in a way that is unwelcome.”
But Georgia’s central human resources office, part of the Department of Administrative Services, has zero enforcement authority. Each agency can apply the rules in its own way “to fit its culture and other business needs,” Rebecca Sullivan, Administrative Services’ assistant commissioner and general counsel, said in a statement to the AJC.
The departments just have to stay within the personnel board’s general guidelines. How those guidelines apply in real-world situations is up for interpretation by the various agencies that receive complaints.
Here’s how that worked out for Lynne Troha.
A secretary at a Georgia State Patrol post near the coast, Troha reported that she tried for months to discourage sexual advances from a young State Patrol corporal, Chris Niehus, whom she barely knew.
According to her complaint, it all started when he gave her a lift from a police officer’s funeral to the cemetery.
Within weeks, the trooper was calling her, saying he was having sexual dreams about her, Troha reported. He told her he hadn’t gotten out of the car when he dropped her off after the funeral because he had an erection.
Niehus did not respond to the AJC’s requests for comment. Troha declined to be interviewed but consented to her name being published.
Records show she told her supervisors about that “shocking” conversation after the funeral, but opted not to file a formal complaint because she “had it handled.”
Until she didn’t.
Later, the corporal texted her that he was lost and had wound up outside her house, according to investigative records. Two months after that, he called to say he’d be at her patrol post soon for training, and that she should make time after hours so he could have “Lynne time,” she reported. When he arrived, he offered to help her with a computer spreadsheet program.
According to the complaint she filed the next day, Niehus knelt beside her, placed his hand on her lower back for several minutes, then stood up and massaged her shoulders. Troha said she told him to stop, that she had something else to do.
“Yeah,” the trooper responded, according to Troha’s complaint, “you were going to do me.”
In interviews with investigators, Niehus admitted telling Troha about his sex dreams and having an erection, though he said that Troha had asked him questions about the dream, so he thought she was into the conversation. He admitted telling her she may have to visit him in the barracks, and said that he was referencing his sex dream. He also admitted telling her several times that he was attracted to her but said he perceived her to be “flattered.”
Nearly three months later, Public Safety found he did not sexually harass Troha. Their personal conversations were mutual, the agency decided.
Niehus’ superiors did give him a written reprimand for poor conduct, and three of Troha’s supervisors were written up for doing nothing after she told them she wasn’t comfortable around the trooper.
That wasn’t an isolated incident for Troha.
She also complained to Public Safety that, during this same time period, another officer had put his hand on her thigh and propositioned her during a ride-along training program. That officer also received a written reprimand, but investigators concluded “this incident is relatively minor and alone does not rise to the level of unlawful sexual harassment.”
Actually, there is plenty to suggest that the officers’ behavior around Troha was harassing, said Emory University law professor Deborah Dinner. She has no connection to the case and reviewed documentation for it at the AJC’s request.
“It does seem like men were routinely sexualizing her,” she said.
Public Safety spokesman Capt. Mark Perry said Niehus’ conduct was indefensible, but Niehus was not Troha’s supervisor, and it’s possible the trooper believed she was reciprocating.
“We are talking about legal definitions of what is sexual harassment or hostile work environment,” Perry said. “From day one it’s obvious that it’s unwelcome and its inappropriate, but at some point she has to tell him.”
That’s not true. Nothing in state policy or settled law requires victims of harassment to confront their harassers.
A multiple-choice sexual harassment test that Georgia State Patrol gives its employees makes that point. In the test, a wrong answer about how best to avoid problems at work is “assume that a polite response equals consent of your behavior or request.”
Heavy hand vs. light touch
The way Georgia operates, how seriously complaints are taken depends on the agency involved.
In some, investigators can go in with blinders on, records indicate. At others, a complaint can trigger an aggressive probe.
Take the case of a Department of Community Health nurse.
She reported that while attending a 2012 training conference in San Diego, her co-worker, Frank Cheney, took her across the border to Tijuana under the pretense of bargain shopping. Instead, he took her to a brothel, where he tried to negotiate a three-way encounter with a prostitute, she said.
When she demanded to leave, Cheney told her she would have to pay for her own taxi back across the border, her complaint said. She told him she would rather walk. He relented and left with her.
A former police officer who works as an investigator for Community Health’s inspector general approached interviews with both parties like a detective ferreting out a crime, asking questions about minor details and pinning down each person’s account, paper and audio records show.
Then he grilled Cheney, eventually getting him to admit he’d taken the woman to a Mexican bordello, case records show. The department fired him.
The AJC made multiple attempts to reach Cheney for comment, but he did not return calls or a message left at his home.
Rulings on other cases have been made after investigators barely scratched the surface. Such was the case when the Department of Community Affairs cut a break to a manager accused last year of rubbing his hand on a female temp worker’s buttock.
Even though she was the third person in eight years to accuse Michael Galloway of unwanted touching, the HR official who investigated didn’t interview other women in the manager’s orbit to see if they’d been harassed or saw anything. The HR director noted in his summary that since the victim had no witnesses, more interviews “would only create disturbance within the work group.”
Galloway got a written warning that a third strike — or fourth accuser — could get him fired.
He still works there. “It was a lot more to the situation than probably what you’re seeing,” Galloway told an AJC reporter by phone. “That’s not exactly what happened.”
Community Affairs would not discuss the case, sending a written statement that says it takes “appropriate corrective action on any claims of this nature.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office defended the status quo. His spokeswoman insisted Georgia has “consistent policies in place” and referred the newspaper to the state’s personnel board rules.
But state government’s highest-ranking female official questioned the logic of executive branch agencies handling cases in their own way.
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, served as the only woman on a six-member subcommittee this year that developed new sexual harassment rules for legislators, their staff and lobbyists at the State Capitol. During the process, she learned that different agencies in the executive branch develop their own policies.
“It would seem that they would be the same,” she said. “Should there be different policies? Does that make sense?”
Ideally, government employees should have the option of appealing department-level decisions to a superseding, centralized authority, said Chai Feldblum, an EEOC commissioner who co-chaired its task force on workplace harassment.
“What you want to try to do is nip bad behavior in the bud, before it becomes egregious. So for that, it’s important that each division has its own office that can get complaints, that can do proactive training,” Feldblum said. “But it’s also worth it, I think, to have ultimately a more outside, independent entity that one can go to when things aren’t being done well.”
LET US HEAR FROM YOU
Are you a Georgia state employee who has been sexually harassed on the job? How was your case handled? The AJC wants to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the reporters on this story by phone or email. Your name will be kept confidential if you don’t want it published.
Georgia in the dark
Georgia’s hodge-podge system also means troubling trends can go unrecognized, and the governor or other top officials may not be alerted if work cultures may have spun out of control.
If anyone in higher echelons of government did want to look for that, they’d be hard pressed. No one in Georgia is even counting complaints, much less analyzing them.
The Department is Administrative Services used to try to tally sexual harassment cases reported by most executive branch agencies. But it stopped after 2015 and won’t explain why.
The AJC tried using open records requests to find out, but could not get a complete accounting from the state. For example, the AJC is still awaiting records requested months ago from the Department of Juvenile Justice or even a summary of its cases.
Some executive branch agencies, including the Department of Veterans Service and the Georgia Forestry Commission, told the AJC they had no records of sexual harassment complaints.
But other departments, including the Governor’s office and Economic Development, responded that locating sexual harassment records would be cumbersome, requiring them to parse out the cases from a large number of files.
Some other state governments have been up to the task, though. After troubling revelations about how their agencies were responding to sexual harassment, they have triggered changes.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed an order last December requiring all state agencies to adopt uniform sexual harassment policies. The order came nine days after his appointee to the Public Service Commission quit after being accused of sexual harassment. Some of Scott’s Democratic rivals have proposed creating central offices to handle complaints, with uniform reporting and investigating procedures.
In Minnesota early this year, a panel appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton found an inconsistent system throughout the state bureaucracy that allowed many perpetrators to go unpunished. The panel’s recommendations include creating an independent, centralized office to receive complaints, conduct investigations and enforce policies and procedures.
California Gov. Jerry Brown in June set aside $1.5 million to begin tracking sexual harassment and discrimination complaints in a central location, following reports of accused harassers being shuffled from one department to another. The program is expected to be running by year’s end.
It’s time for Georgia to follow suit, says Karla Jacobs, chairwoman of the Georgia Commission on Women. The state needs a better system to ensure fair outcomes, and a bipartisan commission of 15 business leaders and advocates stands ready to help policymakers in whatever way they need, she said.
“Our state government employees should be able to work in an environment without harassment and hostility,” Jacobs said, “and just be able to do their jobs.”
HOW WE GOT THIS STORY
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought records under the Georgia Open Records Act from nearly 30 state departments and agencies regarding sexual harassment complaints in the past five years.
Over the course of eight months, the newspaper collected and read more than 20,000 pages of documents from 17 agencies. The AJC also sought and obtained data from the state Department of Administrative Services regarding harassment and sexual harassment cases reported to it by other state agenices. Reporters then entered information about each case into a spreadsheet, recording a summary, the names of the people involved, the dates and the case outcomes. The spreadsheet allowed the AJC to track trends across agencies, each of which adjudicates its own cases.
Reporters contacted several current and former state employees who reported being victims of sexual harassment. Many were unwilling to talk on the record, citing embarassment and fear of retaliation. The newspaper has chosen to not to identify the harassment purported victims without their consent.
The AJC also made repeated attempts to contact those accused of sexual harassment, as well as agency officials responsible for looking into complaints.
The newspaper is continuing to negotiate with several agencies regarding production of their records. Some offered to provide the records only at substantial cost. The AJC has so far paid or commited to paying more than $6,600 to acquire harassment-related records.