• Georgia grapples with sexual harassment complaints

    Updated:
    ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia's inspector general's office has taken charge of auditing and centralizing sexual harassment complaints across state agencies. But the office has not been provided additional money or staff, even as its workload has increased significantly, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported .

    Georgia had such an inconsistent system for investigating sexual harassment complaints that no one agency even knew the total number of complaints at a given time, according to a review last year by the newspaper of nearly 200 of such complaints made over five years.

    The investigation uncovered toxic workplace cultures where women dealt with dirty jokes, pornography and sexual propositions from male co-workers. In some cases, women were even at risk of physical and sexual assault. It raised concerns about a system that protected male perpetrators and had a wide variation of disciplinary responses for similar offenses.

    In response to the investigation, Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year directed the State Inspector General to be an auditor and clearinghouse for complaints from across the state. His order also allows state employees who fear their own agency will not adequately address their complaint to directly contact the inspector general's office.

    It has been less than two months since the new rules took effect and the inspector general's office is struggling to manage the steep caseload.

    "It's a lot," said Inspector General Deborah Wallace. "As much as it's put on us, it's clear to me that we were needed. I'm grateful to be a part of it. It's sad to me that it took this long. I wish that we had this years ago."

    Since the rule change, Wallace's office has already received more than 50 complaints from just under two-dozen agencies, including the Department of Corrections and the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

    In the absence of enough staff to investigate the complaints herself, Wallace can usually only guide the involved agencies in how to conduct their own investigation. And it does not always work out as planned.

    If a department declares that it cannot conduct an unbiased investigation, Wallace then looks for an investigator from other busy agencies without the authority to ensure they do so.

    In one case, 46-year-old Georgia state trooper Chris Niehus sent a string of Facebook messages that started just before 3 a.m. to a 20-year-old female dispatcher. Later in the day, he liked some of her Facebook photos and sent her another message with his cellphone number.

    The dispatcher complained to her supervisor, who initially told her to "keep the situation quiet" and wrote in a statement that "it was over, misunderstood and not necessary to continue telling people, because it can really get people in trouble."

    The supervisor reported the complaint after showing her pictures of Niehus' wife and child to show he was a "family man," according to a report, even though policy required supervisors to immediately report this kind of behavior.

    Niehus was eventually demoted and transferred to another post after an investigation found he had harassed the dispatcher. He did not respond to a request for comment from the newspaper.

    This was not the first time he had been the subject of a harassment complaint.

    A Georgia State Patrol secretary, Lynn Troha, had previously filed a grievance against Niehus, complaining that he had described sexual dreams about her, inappropriately touched her and texted her in ways she believed were invitations to sexual encounters.

    Three supervisors were eventually punished for failing to report her grievances.

    "And guess what happened two years later? You are back in that same boat," she said. "If they had addressed it the first time, it never would have happened a second time."

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    Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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