VOL. 132 | NO. 40 | Friday, February 24, 2017
Harwell: Lovell Investigation Handled Correctly
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – An investigation into now-former Rep. Mark Lovell started a day after he allegedly had inappropriate contact with a woman and lasted two to three days, House Speaker Beth Harwell says.
Speaking publicly about the matter for the first time, Harwell told media at a Tennessee Press Association meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22, that a complaint by a member of the Legislature “triggered” the investigation.
It was complete by the time Lovell, an Eads Republican from Shelby County, resigned the morning of Feb. 14, according to Harwell.
Lovell turned in a resignation letter early that day after House Majority Chairman Ryan Williams told him the previous evening he expected him to resign if the allegations against him “proved to be true.” Williams says he was called by the media and asked about accusations that Lovell touched a woman improperly.
The incident is believed to have happened a week before his resignation at a local restaurant during a reception for state lawmakers.
After Lovell’s resignation roiled the Legislative Plaza, Harwell said any complaint about sexual misconduct would be taken seriously but any investigation would be confidential, and she could not confirm whether a probe was being made.
Asked later, though, if Harwell said no investigation would be made into the allegations against Lovell because he had resigned, she responded that the Legislature’s Workplace Discrimination Policy governs only legislators and staff and if a member or staff is no longer an employee, the General Assembly would no longer have jurisdiction.
But Harwell told the media Wednesday, “We stopped at that point (after the investigation), which the next step would have been going to the subcommittee on ethics, which their job would be to indicate what would be the appropriate course of action, what measures could be taken,” Harwell says. “There was some question as to whether, since he had resigned and was now considered a private citizen, we had the authority to move forward. After reviewing it, I felt like we could because he still had a personnel file that was open.”
Ultimately, the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Subcommittee, after receiving a complaint against Lovell, sent a letter to Harwell on Feb. 17 stating, “Based upon the completed staff investigation, which included interviews with all parties, the Ethics Subcommittee finds that Representative Lovell violated the policy.”
Lovell was advised to avoid all contact with the complainant and other parties involved in the complaint, the report states.
The Ethics Subcommittee, which is chaired by state Rep. Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads, “is committed to protecting members, employees and visitors by providing an environment free of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Discrimination and harassment in any form will not be tolerated,” the report states. “The subcommittee strongly urges all individuals, including the media, to respect the privacy of those involved in this complaint. In accordance with Policy and Rule 82, no further information concerning this complaint will be released.”
McDaniel says the committee met off and on during the week of Lovell’s resignation, but wasn’t certain action could be taken against him. On Thursday, though, the panel decided to put together a report because “it’s obvious he’s done something he shouldn’t have,” McDaniel says.
Harwell says she decided, after consulting with the personnel department, the Legislature continued to have jurisdiction over Lovell since his personnel file remained open until the end of February.
Lovell has denied touching any woman inappropriately, and late last week, a spokeswoman issued a statement saying, “Mr. Lovell is distressed by these findings, as he still stands by his statement of no wrong doings. However, he sincerely apologizes for any actions that may have been misconstrued as inappropriate or harassment.”
Democratic state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis also raised doubts about the situation because Lovell told a Memphis TV reporter he was asked to resign to avoid embarrassing himself and the Republican Party regardless of whether he committed any wrongdoing.
Harwell says she did not speak to Lovell about the allegations, but she says a member of the House leadership team, which turned out to be Williams, spoke with him.
“And I think they were appropriate in discussing with him the possibility of resigning. I ultimately think he made the right decision for his family and for this body in that resignation,” Harwell says.
The Workplace Harassment Policy was adopted in 2016 after an attorney general’s investigation showed now-former Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Franklin Republican, had inappropriate contact with 22 women at the Legislature. Durham was expelled from the House during a special session called by Gov. Bill Haslam over the summer to deal with legislation that would have cost the state $60 million in federal highway funds.
“I think our new Workplace Harassment Policy proved that, in fact, it works. This was handled swiftly with the victim’s identity never known. It was handled in a proper fashion,” Harwell says. “The new subcommittee met and they were professional in how they handled it. It was resolved in a timely fashion, and I think that’s a real credit to the new policy.”
As to whether the Legislature’s approval rating is only 50 percent, based on a recent Middle Tennessee State University poll, because of matters such as the Durham sexual harassment incident, Harwell points out a Vanderbilt University poll put it at 60 percent, much higher than the approval rating for Congress.
“Things like this come up in every occupation, every walk of life,” she says. “It’s how you handle them during those crises that’s the true measure. I think we handled them correctly.”
An interim replacement for Lovell can be made by the Shelby County Commission until a special election is held.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.