Louisiana Female Lawmakers: Misconduct Policies Have Gaps

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's female lawmakers said Friday that they want to tighten policies in the state Capitol for handling sexual-misconduct allegations, calling it their duty to make sure people who work in the building are protected from mistreatment.

"The people of Louisiana deserve to be assured that this issue is not being pushed aside," said Rep. Helena Moreno, a New Orleans Democrat.

The review of existing House and Senate policies comes after sexual-misconduct accusations across the nation over the past several months that have unseated people in positions of power in Hollywood, the media and government.

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In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards' deputy chief of staff stepped down in November amid such claims. A recent review of records found the state has paid at least $1.3 million to settle more than two dozen sexual-harassment claims since mid-2009, including allegations made against college professors, judges and a former state lawmaker.

While much of Friday's hearing focused on technical testimony about the current sexual-harassment prohibitions in regulations and law, the meeting turned emotional with public testimony.

Three University of Louisiana at Lafayette faculty members described being unable to get administrative assistance to end what they described as workplace harassment. A former legislative employee shakily stepped forward and said he was harassed by a lawmaker in the 1980s.

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Chip Coulter, who now works at Louisiana's social services agency, said the lawmaker, whom he didn't name, exposed himself to Coulter and "gave a rather vulgar proposition to me" in a Capitol restroom when Coulter worked for another legislator. He said he worried that by not reporting the encounter, he may have left others vulnerable to the same treatment.

"It's one of those events I kind of buried deep. It's not something I think about. I share out of guilt," Coulter said.

Patricia Lanier was one of three UL-Lafayette business professors who spoke, urging lawmakers to consider new statutes governing training and enforcement of sexual-harassment policies on college campuses.

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"We walk every day into a hostile work environment," she said.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, asked the female faculty members to "help us understand the gaps as you see them and what we can do to correct those."

The hearing was an unusual one in the Louisiana Capitol. Though it was a meeting of a Senate committee on women's and children's issues, several female House members sat in the discussion — and testimony came from officials with both the House and Senate.

Both chambers have policies banning sexual harassment and outlining processes for reporting and investigating complaints. A legislative resolution passed in 2012 requires lawmakers and their staff, among others, to receive sexual-harassment training, though it's not clear that everyone complies with the requirement.

Lawmakers suggested they pinpoint areas in the policies where changes are needed, and pondered whether an anonymous survey of employees would be helpful. No decisions were made.

The resignation of Edwards' deputy chief of staff Johnny Anderson — and the broader national conversation about sexual misconduct — spurred multiple reviews of Louisiana's policies for handling claims. Edwards has created a seven-member study group to make recommendations by March 1. Louisiana's legislative auditor is conducting his own review.

Anderson left the governor's office after sexual-harassment claims were made against him. Anderson had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women in 2006 when he worked for then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and was chairman of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors. He has denied wrongdoing.

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press 

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