BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana senators agreed Tuesday to enact a statewide policy against sexual misconduct in government, moving the proposal one step from final passage on the same day Secretary of State Tom Schedler announced his resignation amid allegations he sexually harassed an employee.
As senators voted 38-0 for the legislation, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson took aim at Schedler's interim replacement, Kyle Ardoin, questioning how much Ardoin knew about the alleged misconduct.
"If you knew what Secretary of State Schedler was doing, step down tomorrow," Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, said to Ardoin, without naming him.
In a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Schedler's employee in February, the woman claims Ardoin was aware of some of the problems she was having with Schedler and ordered her to "stay out of sight" at work after she rebuffed Schedler's sexual advances.
Schedler, a Republican in the office since 2010, announced Tuesday that he would resign May 8 amid intensifying scrutiny about the harassment allegations and increasing calls for him to leave the position. As Schedler's first assistant, Ardoin is slated to take over the job until a special election to choose a new secretary of state.
Ardoin said the woman didn't tell him Schedler was sexually harassing her — and he doesn't intend to step down.
"I was unaware of any sexual harassment issues or allegations between the secretary and his accuser until the day the lawsuit was filed," Ardoin said in an interview Tuesday night. "That was the day I learned about any of this."
As for the lawsuit's claims that Ardoin ordered the woman to steer clear of Schedler, Ardoin said Schedler told him of a "disagreement they had and that was the reason I should have a conversation with her." But Ardoin said the woman never claimed sexual misconduct.
"Had she done so, I would have pursued it in the appropriate manner according to the policy that we have," Ardoin said.
The bill nearing final passage — sponsored by Rep. Barbara Carpenter, a Baton Rouge Democrat — 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 a mandatory hour of prevention training each year.
The measure, which returns to the House for approval of Senate changes, is a compromise crafted by several women who proposed differing policies when they learned in the wake of the #MeToo movement that Louisiana lacks a statewide anti-sexual harassment policy.
"One thing is very clear. We need to change the culture of sexual harassment in state government, and really throughout private industry as well," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican. "This is something that we're going to have to continue to monitor."
A recent 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. Louisiana recently paid $85,000 to settle claims that a former aide to Gov. John Bel Edwards, Johnny Anderson, sexually harassed a female colleague in the governor's office. Anderson left his position but denies wrongdoing.
As she urged passage, Peterson recalled her own #MeToo moment, which happened during her tenure as a state lawmaker. She said a person on a high-level state board "inappropriately touched me years ago." And she warned all harassers: "What you do in the dark will always come into the light. It's only a matter of time."
House Bill 524: www.legis.la.gov
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