BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's state government officials are joining the rest of the nation in a public soul-searching about sexual misconduct policies and the hostile work environments that people can encounter.

The catalyst for a widespread state government review is a sexual harassment allegation lodged against a former top aide to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

At least three studies of state agency policies regarding sexual harassment are planned, and it appears the topic could become the subject of legislation in the spring.

Publicly, state officials present a united front, saying no one should face harassment in the workplace and sexual misconduct won't be tolerated. But the review of how complaints are handled and discipline is determined likely will raise uncomfortable questions about how to fact-check accusations, who determines appropriate punishment and whether the policies make people feel safe to report inappropriate behavior.

Policies prohibiting sexual harassment appear to be required across state government.

In 2012, state lawmakers passed legislation by Sen. Dale Erdey, a Livingston Republican, that directed each agency to provide a "minimum of one hour of education and training on sexual harassment during each year" to public employees and officials. State agencies were required to keep records of compliance.

The civil service department said it developed a training program in response to the legislation and allows other agencies to use it. But departments police their own staff to make sure employees are meeting the educational requirement, and it's unclear if agencies have uniform standards in handling misconduct allegations.

In Edwards' office, Johnny Anderson left his job as the Democratic governor's deputy chief of staff for programs and planning last month, after he was accused of sexual harassment. No specific claim has been released publicly. Anderson denies wrongdoing, but said he resigned to avoid becoming a "distraction."

Anderson previously had been accused of sexual harassment when he worked as assistant chief of staff for Gov. Kathleen Blanco and was chairman of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors. Anderson maintained his innocence in 2006, and Blanco kept him on staff.

This time, Edwards responded with an internal investigation and an executive order creating a seven-member study group to review Louisiana's policies for handling sexual misconduct claims. The study group owes its recommendations and findings to Edwards by March 1.

"Every person, whether they work in state government or private industry, should be able to do their jobs without fear of being sexually harassed or discriminated against," Edwards said in a statement.

Louisiana's legislative auditor, Daryl Purpera, is doing a similar review, a performance audit requested by Sen. Sharon Hewitt. The Republican lawmaker from Slidell requested a comparison of Louisiana's policies for handling allegations to those of other states and a tally of how much Louisiana agencies spent on sexual-harassment settlements over the past five years.

While any money spent on such claims across state government remains to be calculated, the House and Senate say they've got no records showing public tax dollars have ever been spent on sexual harassment settlements, in response to public records requests filed by the AP.

First Assistant Senate Secretary Yolanda Dixon said records show two sexual harassment complaints have been formally filed with the Senate human resources office, one in 2008 and the other in 2013. Neither complaint involved a senator, she said.

House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer said "less than a handful" of formal complaints have been filed since the House enacted an explicit policy prohibiting sexual harassment "well over 10 years" ago. In the past five years, four sexual harassment complaints have been filed, Speer said, two by House employees alleging sexual harassment by lawmakers.

Neither chamber released the names of those involved, citing employee confidentiality.

Members of the Legislative Women's Caucus intend to dig into House and Senate policies regarding sexual harassment, with a hearing planned on the topic.

"It's important to examine our current policies to ensure best practices are in place to provide a comfortable working environment in the Legislature," Rep. Helena Moreno, a New Orleans Democrat who chairs the women's caucus, said in a statement.

 

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at twitter.com/melindadeslatte.