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Posted: Thursday, July 1st 2004 at 4:00am

State paid $190,000 to settle earlier sex harassment suit

By The Associated Press
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The sexual harassment lawsuit pending against state parole board member Gene Walker isn't the first time he's been named in such a case. The Associated Press has learned that the state quietly paid $190,000 a dozen years ago to settle the first lawsuit in which Walker was accused of sexually harassing a secretary.

The payment has never been identified as such in a state budget or audit, but following inquiries by The AP, the Legislative Fiscal Office and the state auditor confirmed the money was paid through a budget category labeled "other operating funds" of the state Senate in 1993.

The earlier lawsuit was filed when Walker was a powerful state senator. The state paid to settle allegations that he and two legislative colleagues sexually harassed a secretary in the state Senate.

An even bigger payout potentially is at stake in the current lawsuit against Walker, which was filed by a former parole board secretary. Plaintiff's lawyers have told the state's risk managers they believe their claim is worth $1 million to $3 million in damages.

Walker, who helps decide when murderers, sex offenders, and other felons are released from prison, declined a request for an interview. He referred questions through a parole board spokeswoman to his state-paid attorney, Bruce Edenfield.

Edenfield said Walker "vehemently" denies wrongdoing in either case and is "vigorously defending" himself.

Appointed by former Gov. Roy Barnes to the five-person Board of Pardons and Paroles, Walker's term expires in 2006. He previously headed the Department of Juvenile Justice and before that, from 1985 through 1992, he was a member of the state Senate.

As a senator, Walker was the Democratic whip and chaired the Senate Reapportionment Committee during the 1991-1992 redistricting effort.

In 1989, Jacqueline Livingston filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that while a secretary for the state Senate she was sexually and verbally abused by then-Sens. Hildred Shumake, David Scott and Walker.

The complaint escalated to a federal civil lawsuit in 1992, and was settled a year later.

Shumake died in 2002. Scott is now serving in Congress. His press aide, Rob Griner, said Scott had no comment on the matter.

In the settlement, the state agreed to remove adverse performance evaluations from the woman's file and pay compensatory damages of $190,000 but did not admit fault.

Mike Bowers, the state's attorney general at the time, said this week he could not remember specifically why he recommended a settlement.

Generally, he said, he would recommend such a step when he was "worried about the risk if we went forward with the litigation, and the best economic decision the state could make was to avoid the cost, avoid the risk and get out of it. That's fairly standard."

Kelly Timmons, an assistant law professor at Georgia State University who handled sexual harassment cases in private practice, said settlements are common in such cases to avoid the cost of extended litigation, and don't constitute proof of the validity of the charges.

"Even if the defendant and the defense attorney don't think the plaintiff has a very strong case, it's very common for these to settle for nuisance value," she said.

But she added, "The fact that it settled for $190,000 suggests that the state was concerned enough to offer six figures, which is more than nuisance value."

The latest case was filed in 2002 in Fulton County State Court by Patricia Alexander, who claims that soon after she went to work for Walker at the parole board he "began making sexual innuendo and suggestive comments."

The lawsuit claims the comments included "using sexually oriented and obscene language, commenting on the sexual activities and sexual preferences of other men and women, discussing his own sexual preferences, making inappropriate displays of affection and making offensive remarks concerning plaintiff's anatomy and the anatomy of other women."

Lawyers are taking depositions from those involved.

Some believe the state's financial risk could be heightened if the case goes to trial and attorneys for the secretary can introduce evidence of the previous accusation.

"Certainly, the state would want any evidence of this previous charge and the settlement excluded from evidence, saying it wasn't relevant and was unduly prejudicial," Timmons said. "Certainly the plaintiff will try to get evidence of this in, asserting that it represents a pattern of behavior that the state was aware of."

The secretary's attorneys almost certainly "would argue that keeping someone with this kind of pattern of behavior indicates more fault on the part of the state, which should be relevant in the damage determination," she said.


Associated Categories: State News

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