A sexual harassment allegation against former S.C. Rep. Nelson Hardwick is an isolated incident, House members suggested Thursday. But the accusation by a House staff member should put state representatives on notice about their treatment of women, legislators added.
Those allegations apparently now are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
“This is a lesson going forward for anyone who is in a position or finds themselves tempted to cross the line to say, ‘That’s a bad idea,’” said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. “There will be a lot of people who do some self examination of their attitudes and actions.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the treatment of women, including comments about their appearance or hugs, has changed since the allegations against Hardwick, R-Horry, spread in the House Wednesday.
“The fear of God is in some of the offenders still in the chamber,” she said. “So at least for a minute or two, they straighten up and fly right. The question is whether there will be a lasting change in behavior. And I suggest to you, probably not.”
The House released four letters Thursday involving the accusation against Hardwick, a 63-year-old married father of three who resigned Tuesday after 10 years in office.
An independent investigation found merit to the sexual harassment allegations, according to a letter House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, handed to Hardwick Tuesday.
The speaker’s office hired an outside law firm, Fisher & Phillips, to investigate the allegations against Hardwick, Lucas wrote in a letter released as part of an open records request. The allegations first were reported to the House Clerk’s office April 30.
The law firm interviewed Hardwick, an engineer from Surfside Beach, and other people, whose names were not disclosed. The identity of the alleged victim was redacted from the letter.
“The law firm investigation concluded that the allegations of sexual harassment are founded, and the House of Representatives and I take these allegations very seriously,” Lucas wrote in the letter to Hardwick. “The House will not tolerate inappropriate behavior by members or staff toward anyone.”
The letter says the results of the investigation had been sent to the S.C. attorney general and the House Ethics Committee.
The Attorney General’s office said Wednesday it had turned over information about an unnamed lawmaker, sent to it by the speaker’s office, to SLED to investigate potential crimes.
House Clerk Charles Reid said in a letter to reporters that SLED and the attorney general did not want the law firm’s investigative reports released because they are part of a criminal probe.
Hardwick has denied the allegations and, unsuccessfully, tried to rescind his resignation. His attorney, Henrietta Golding, said she has no confirmation that Hardwick is under investigation by SLED.
In a separate letter dated Wednesday, Lucas said he thought the harassment issue was isolated to Hardwick, adding it is the first such complaint of its kind that he was aware during his 16 years in the House. Other lawmakers interviewed Thursday concurred with Lucas.
“That said, however, one complaint is one too many,” Lucas wrote to Reid and House Operations Committee chairman Garry Smith, R-Greenville, Wednesday.
Lucas said he wanted Reid and Smith to review the House’s sexual harassment policies “to assure the best possible work environment exists.” A copy of those policies was not available Thursday.
Lucas, who took over as speaker late last year after Bobby Harrell’s resignation, also wrote that he wanted to assure staff members to know House leaders would react quickly to reports of inappropriate behavior.
Staffers should not be concerned an accused House member would take revenge, Bannister said.
“We’re not tolerating that,” he said. “You don’t have to fear retribution from one member because there’s no (single) member that has that much power.”
Rep. Grady Brown, a Lee County Democrat who is the longest serving member of the House, said lawmakers should know the boundaries with staffers.
“You would think human beings who are 21 years old or 50 years old would know how to act and treat fellow human beings,” he said.
House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said he warns incoming lawmakers that they will get caught if they make mistakes.
“If you think you are going to come up to Columbia and you don’t think your actions will be (seen) or found out, then you’re sadly mistaken,” Bingham said. “There are too many eyes looking. There are too many people who want to catch you doing something to make you look bad.
“There are cellphone cameras. There’s people who know who you are. They know the places people go at night,” he added. “If people say or do anything out of line, you’re going to be found out.”
The digital era might have led to a shift in behavior at the State House.
When Bannister was first elected in 2005, the Greenville Republican said he had the same perception as some members of the public that the Legislature was a “good ol’ boy system with all sorts of shenanigans that are overlooked and no one says anything about.”
But Bannister said he found a more office-like atmosphere.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how everyone focused on business and how seriously they took the job,” Bannister said. “The old ‘look the other way,’ if there was that attitude early on (in my tenure), it’s not here now.”