Cover Story: Sexual harassment and government

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Answers in an alleged sexual harassment case involving Charlotte city council member Warren Turner.

You may remember in March, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx sent an email saying that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

That sparked a series of attempts to uncover just what the mayor was referring to.

That's when an outside investigator was brought in.  The results of that investigation into Turner's conduct were released Monday night.

In our Cover Story we're asking what happens next?

One expert we talked to said there is a huge hole in terms of people who work in government.

Most experts believe sexual harassment is under-reported, probably even more so when an elected official is involved.

And there is no state law in place that addresses penalties at the state or local level if an elected official is found guilty of sexually harassing a staff member.

The politician can't be fired since he or she, in the example of a city council member. isn't under the city manager's authority.

In fact city council members are the manager's boss.

And even if a governing body were to adopt a policy or even "rebuke" a member, Prof. Diane Juffras with the UNC School of Government says, "That has no legal function or no legal standing. It's just an expression of the council's disappointment."

Ten years ago, the Charlotte City Council adopted a policy, "A Guidelines of Operation" that says at all times the Mayor, City council members and city staff will address and treat each other with respect, civility, courtesy and professionalism.

But it doesn't specifically address sexual harassment nor what would happen.

The General Assembly last year passed a new ethics law that requires all elected officials to undergo ethics training but sexual harassment is generally not part of that program either.

Employment experts say sexual harassment is a critical problem impacting American businesses and organizations.

In 2008, the most recent data available, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 13,867 charges of sexual harassment.

The federal agency recovered $47.4 million in damages for victims.

But when it comes to relationships between elected officials and their subordinates there's a big loophole.

If the harassment rises to the level of being a federal offense and the politician doing the harassing is convicted of a felony.. then he or she could be kicked out of office.  But short of reaching that level there's no punishment written in the law for either at the state or local level.

In the case of the Charlotte City Council can they discipline one of their members?

That's unclear at this point as well.

Since city policies against sexual harassment don't apply to elected leaders the mayor has said he'd like to close the loophole.  It's unclear how that will happen too.

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