BATON ROUGE — Faced with multiple proposals to toughen Louisiana government's policies against sexual harassment, senators whittled them down to one compromise bill Wednesday, removing language that could have hidden misconduct allegations and investigation details from the public.
Three proposals to enact anti-harassment training and policies across government were pending in the Senate. The sponsors agreed to move ahead with one bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Carpenter , a Baton Rouge Democrat. The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee sent that measure to the full Senate for debate without objection.
"What I have heard from members is, for the purpose of uniformity, they would like to vote on one instrument," said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the New Orleans Democrat who chairs the committee.
On Tuesday, a legislative audit showed Louisiana has spent nearly $5.2 million on 84 lawsuits involving sexual harassment claims since 2009. That includes payments to people who filed claims as well as lawyers' costs.
Beyond the lawsuits, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office said executive branch agencies reported 311 internal complaints involving sexual harassment from 2013 through 2017. The attorney general's office told auditors that it doesn't track such complaints, and LSU only provided limited information.
Purpera's office noted Louisiana doesn't have a uniform sexual harassment policy governing its agencies. The review, released Tuesday night, found that only four of the 18 agency policies reviewed by auditors meet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's "minimum criteria for what should be included."
Carpenter's legislation would require state and local government agencies to enact anti-sexual-harassment policies that include a process for handling complaints, a ban against retaliation when someone files a complaint and mandatory one-hour prevention training annually.
Possible changes to the bill's language still are being negotiated.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican from Slidell who proposed a more sweeping measure, said she'd like to see more expansive training requirements for supervisors. She also raised concerns that Carpenter's bill doesn't require standard policies across government.
"I don't believe, to be fair, that we're going to end up with something that's uniform across all agencies," under the bill, Hewitt said.
Disagreements also had emerged about whether to shield certain details of sexual-misconduct investigations from public view.
Lawmakers had said they're trying to balance a level of confidentiality that makes victims and witnesses feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment with transparency about the actions of public employees.
Senators on the committee Wednesday eliminated language previously inserted into Carpenter's bill to give a broad public records exemption to documents involving sexual harassment allegations. Public-records advocates had objected to that provision.
Female lawmakers called for a review of state policies against sexual misconduct after accusations across the nation spurred by the #MeToo movement unseated people in positions of power. Several high-profile Louisiana officials have been accused of sexual harassment.
Louisiana recently paid $85,000 to settle claims that former Gov. John Bel Edwards aide Johnny Anderson sexually harassed a woman when they worked together in the governor's office. Anderson left his position but denies wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit is pending against Secretary of State Tom Schedler, accusing him of harassing a woman who worked in his office and punishing her when she rebuffed advances. Schedler's spokeswoman said Schedler had a consensual sexual relationship with the woman, a claim the woman's lawyer denied.