By Lauren Heffker, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — House and Senate lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation that would require elected officials and public employees involved in sexual harassment suits to pay all or a portion of the legal fees, instead of using taxpayer dollars.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is also expected to sign a bill that would expand the legal protection of law enforcement officers who have received verbal or written threats.
These proposals were backed by legislators from both sides of the aisle.
Sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, the sexual harassment bill is an effort to hold public officials and employees accountable while also reducing the amount of public money spent on the settlement of these suits.
Lawsuits involving sexual harassment have cost Louisiana taxpayers $5 million since 2009, according to a 2018 legislative audit.
“I brought this bill so that those who that are guilty of sexual harassment would have some skin in the game and be financially accountable for their actions,” Hewitt said.
The proposal would make claims against public employees, and the settlements, public record. Under Hewitt’s bill, the victim’s name would not be included in the public records. Employees making false sexual harassment accusations, however, could face disciplinary measures.
The sexual harassment bill now heads to the governor’s desk for final review.
Louisiana legislators already passed a series of laws last year to curb sexual harassment in the state in light of the national #MeToo movement.
One high profile case involved the state’s chief election officer.
In 2018, the state paid almost $184,000 in the sexual harassment lawsuit against former Secretary of State Tom Schedler.
Schedler, who held the office since 2010, resigned in May 2018 after he was accused of sexual harassment by one of his female employees.
In addition to $35,000 on lawyers’ fees, taxpayers spent $149,075 on Schedler’s case, which did not go to trial, according to a Division of Administration report.
Last week, the governor signed into law a measure that would prohibit the use of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements involving public funds.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, aims to end victim silencing in sexual harassment lawsuits and increase transparency in the use of taxpayer dollars.