For many months, the topic of sexual harassment has dominated headlines nationwide, as women in high-profile media positions have confronted alleged abusers whose positions of power had made them seem invincible. But a recent report in The Times-Picayune makes it clear that sexual harassment has also been pervasive in state government and has cost the Louisiana taxpayers as much as $5.2 million in the last decade.
According to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, who looked at 18 state government agencies, the state paid for a total of 84 sexual harassment lawsuits from mid-2009 to 2018, while agencies in the executive branch also processed 311 internal complaints in just five years, from 2013 to 2017. The agencies with the highest payouts were:
Some agencies, such as the Louisiana Department of Justice, do not even track sexual harassment complaints and were not able to provide data to investigators preparing the report. So, the true scope of the problem could be much worse than it appears. When the auditor surveyed government employees, 14 percent said they feared retaliation if they reported sexual harassment, and another 12 percent said they declined to report harassment because they thought nothing would be done about it.
The auditor’s report also found that state agencies lacked a uniform approach to handling sexual harassment complaints and that agencies that did have a mechanism in place were not necessarily employing best practices.
In the midst of these disclosures, the state is also reeling from two high-profile sexual harassment cases. In November 2017, Johnny Anderson resigned as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deputy chief of staff after another staff member accused him of harassment. Though Anderson denies the charges, Louisiana has spent $96,000 on a settlement and attorneys, a sum not included in the $5.2 million figure. The state is also paying an outside attorney $175 an hour to defend itself and Secretary of State Tom Schedler from sexual harassment charges by an employee who, according to The Times-Picayune, claimed the harassment “escalated over a decade.” The auditor’s report underlines the importance of having sexual harassment guidelines and reporting mechanisms in place to prevent misconduct and resolve complaints before incidents expose an organization to liability. We can only hope the state legislature adopts effective reforms that reduce abusive treatment of state workers and preserve the state treasury for more beneficial use.
Becker & Hebert advises businesses of all sizes on proper sexual harassment protocols, and represents businesses and individuals in sexual harassment litigation. Call us at 337-446-0278 or contact us online to schedule an appointment at our Lafayette office.