BATON ROUGE — With calls for his resignation increasing, Louisiana's secretary of state announced Tuesday that he is leaving his position as state elections chief amid allegations he sexually harassed one of his employees.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler said in a letter to the governor that he will be stepping down May 8, becoming the highest-level public official in Louisiana to be felled by sexual misconduct accusations since the #MeToo movement began unseating people in positions of power in Hollywood, the media and government.
"I leave office with a heavy heart knowing I have disappointed the people in my life who care for me the most," Schedler wrote. "But I also have experienced from them the miraculous power of forgiveness and grace during the twilight of my career, and for that I am grateful."
The Republican secretary of state had previously announced plans to stay until his term ended in January 2020, despite a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against him by an employee. But the drumbeat for Schedler's resignation grew louder after the release of sexually themed emails Schedler had sent to the woman who sued him.
A special election will fill the remainder of Schedler's term. Until then, Schedler's first assistant will be in charge.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who pressed Schedler to resign months ago, said in a statement: "I believe this is the best course of action for Tom, his family and the state of Louisiana."
Tuesday's announcement was a stunning fall for Schedler, 68, a longtime elected official from the New Orleans suburb of St. Tammany Parish. Well-liked by colleagues, he was known for his bipartisan approach to the job he's held since 2010.
But in February, one of Schedler's employees filed a lawsuit, claiming Schedler harassed her for years and punished her when she rebuffed his repeated advances. Schedler's spokeswoman said the pair had a consensual sexual relationship. The woman's lawyer, Jill Craft, denies that.
Craft said Schedler's resignation was the "right decision."
"I think it's about time that people take the issues of sexual harassment seriously," she said. "I commend my client for having so much courage. I can't imagine doing what she did to stand up to someone who is a statewide elected official."
In his resignation letter, Schedler described himself as "incredibly frustrated with the tabloid approach to an incredibly serious allegation and the necessity of following the advice of counsel to not try this publicly."
"I trust the judicial process will fairly consider all the facts when they can be properly presented in due time," he wrote.
The woman claims Schedler frequently sent her love letters, sexually propositioned her and showed up at her doorstep with unwanted gifts, including sex tapes. She claims Schedler enlisted help from state security personnel to report on her whereabouts. The lawsuit says the harassment began about a decade ago and escalated over the years.
Edwards and several female lawmakers urged Schedler to leave office after the lawsuit.
The secretary of state had refused to step down, but announced in March he wouldn't run for re-election next year. In that news conference, Schedler didn't directly respond to the allegations, saying "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." He refused to answer questions.
Then, he went back to work, showing up to legislative hearings at the Louisiana Capitol and seeming likely to hang onto his position until the next regularly scheduled election.
But accusations of Schedler's misconduct returned to the forefront last week with the release of the sexually suggestive emails, which were sent on a state account and obtained by The Advocate. The emails showed the secretary of state telling the woman he loved her, demanding she spend time with him and calling her a "hot gal."
Schedler's office partially blacked out parts of the communications in its response to The Advocate's public records request, but the newspaper obtained complete versions of some of the emails, showing many redacted sections contained sexually themed or embarrassing remarks by Schedler.
After the release, Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy called on Schedler to resign, saying the emails show he "crossed the line and abused his position." GOP U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy also followed suit, saying in a statement: "Increasingly it appears the allegations against Secretary Schedler are true."
He is the most prominent Louisiana political figure to face sexual misconduct allegations amid the #MeToo movement. Before Schedler, one of Edwards' deputy chiefs of staff was accused of sexual harassment in November and immediately resigned.