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VOL. 132 | NO. 37 | Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Harris: House Leaders Took Right Action With Lovell Probe

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – A Memphis legislator critical of the initial reaction to former Rep. Mark Lovell’s resignation is “somewhat satisfied” with the conclusion of a House investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

State Sen. Lee Harris, leader of the Senate Minority Caucus, says the House leadership sent some “mixed messages” on Lovell’s departure, first saying no investigation could be made because he resigned, then saying an investigation found he violated the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy. But ultimately, Harris says, House leadership heeded the public’s wishes and took the right action.

“I think that’s what the public wanted, and that’s what we were hearing from the public, that canceling an investigation undermined the integrity of the process in some ways,” Harris says. “The fact it seems like they conducted one leaves a lot of the folks I’ve talked to around here somewhat satisfied.”

The day of Lovell’s abrupt departure for allegedly touching a legislative staff member inappropriately at an after-hours reception, no legislative leaders would confirm the existence of an investigation. One report shows Lovell touched two women inappropriately and one filed a complaint.

House Speaker Beth Harwell at first said any sexual or workplace harassment would not be tolerated and any complaint would be investigated but that any investigation into a complaint would be confidential.

Later that day, when asked if any investigation was being canceled because Lovell resigned, Harwell said the Workplace Discrimination Policy governs only members and staff and that the General Assembly would no longer have jurisdiction.

Lovell later told a Memphis reporter he was asked to resign to avoid embarrassment for himself and the Republican Party.

Such a stance brought harsh criticism from Harris, who broached the idea that Republican leaders were conspiring to kill any investigation.

But Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams said he asked Lovell to resign only if the accusations against him were true.

Lovell denied touching any woman inappropriately, and late in the week, a spokeswoman issued a statement saying, “Mr. Lovell is distressed by these findings, as he still stands by his statement of no wrongdoings. However, he sincerely apologizes for any actions that may have been misconstrued as inappropriate or harassment.”

A firm working for Lovell made the statement late in the week as House Ethics Subcommittee Chairman Steve McDaniel said the panel conducted a meeting to hear from the legislative administration about an investigation into Lovell’s actions.

“After hearing the details of the investigation, the committee found that a violation did occur,” McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, says in a statement.

But because Lovell, an Eads Republican, resigned Feb. 14, no “corrective action” could be taken against him as a private resident, McDaniel says. The record of the committee’s decision is an open record in the legislative administration’s file.

“We feel that the process put in place by the policy worked,” says McDaniel.

The House adopted new rules in 2016 after an attorney general’s investigation found now-former state Rep. Jeremy Durham had inappropriate contact with 22 women in the Legislature. The House voted overwhelmingly to expel Durham in a special session held over the summer to maintain $60 million in road funding.

House Speaker Harwell says she appreciates the subcommittee “bringing closure” to the Lovell matter.

“This finding shows that the system works. The policy put in place last year clearly defined a framework for victims to report violations and have those violations investigated professionally while protecting victims,” Harwell says in a statement.

The victim’s identity was protected during the investigation, which is a “priority,” Harwell says. House leadership will review the policy next year to determine whether it can be improved.

“It is important to me and all legislative leadership that we provide everyone with a safe environment in which excellent work can be accomplished for the state of Tennessee,” Harwell says.

Meanwhile, House leadership is waiting for all of its members, some 30 of 99, to watch a 22-minute video on sexual harassment, one of the few requirements set as part of the new policy to avert inappropriate behavior. Lovell was among those failed to watch the video before a Jan. 31 deadline.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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