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State Rep. Jerry Govan was quietly cleared of harassment allegation after a staffer complained of unwanted hugs

"I told you don't touch me."

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Previously undisclosed documents reveal that state Rep. Jerry Govan was cleared of sexual harassment in an investigation after a female staffer complained of unwanted hugs coming from the Orangeburg Democrat.

Rep. Jerry Govan (D-Orangeburg) - S.C. STATEHOUSE
  • S.C. Statehouse
  • Rep. Jerry Govan (D-Orangeburg)

The unnamed woman worked for Govan and had been employed at the S.C. House of Representatives for several years at the time of her complaint, according to an investigatory report written by the Fisher & Phillips law firm and released to the City Paper under the Freedom of Information Act.

The House responded to a request for "records detailing sexual harassment or sexual misconduct complaints against members of the House."

The report notes that the staffer could think of three instances where Govan hugged her during the legislative session, all of which were in the presence of other people.

"This led her to speculate that Representative Govan hugs her as a way of demonstrating his control," according to the report.

The most vivid example describes an incident that took place in a House antechamber, a small room leading into the House floor. When Govan hugged her, she told investigators that she replied, "I told you don't touch me."

"She stated Representative Govan responded by ordering her to, 'Go get a Clemson pen,'" the report states.

The staffer officially reported Govan's conduct sometime in 2017.

"[Redacted] informed me that Representative Govan has attempted to hug her on more than one occasion and she has asked him not to touch her," her supervisor wrote in a letter addressed to House Speaker Jay Lucas.

Lucas did not respond to a request for comment.

House counsel Michael Anzelmo declined to disclose the supervisor's name, citing a possible "chilling effect" on a reporting process that promises confidentiality. The specific dates of the incident, and of the subsequent investigation, were also not made public.

2017 letter to Speaker Jay Lucas - S.C. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
  • S.C. House of Representatives
  • 2017 letter to Speaker Jay Lucas

The staffer told investigators that she "jokingly" told someone else about unwanted hugs coming from Govan. Her supervisor confirmed to investigators that the staffer had not only complained about Govan's behavior earlier that session, but that she went as far as requesting a suite reassignment.

"[Complainant's Supervisor] did not have any reason to think this was due to any actions by Representative Govan," the report notes.

During his own interview with investigators, Govan highlighted the close relationship he had built with her over the years, and even described his personal hugging technique.

"He recounted how she attended the funerals of his mother and his sister," the report says. "How she had attended family Christenings and attended his inaugural sermon after he was ordained. He stated that on some few occasions such as these it would have been natural for him to hug [redacted]. Representative Govan demonstrated the type of hug he would give (a sideways grasp of the shoulders/non-frontal)."

Govan did not respond to numerous calls and voicemails.

The allegations against him match the House's definition of harassment, which is defined in its Guidelines on Identifying, Reporting, and Addressing Harassment in the Workplace as "unwelcome, direct or indirect, verbal or physical conduct" including "unwelcomed and intentional touching, grabbing, hugging, pinching, cornering, impeding or blocking movement."

However, Fisher & Phillips concluded that because the staffer denied that the hugs represented an "express or perceived sexual motive" and because she "did not attribute the hugs to her gender," Govan had not violated the House's No Harassment policy.

"Regardless, any suggestion that Representative Govan has engaged in impermissible conduct is unfounded and unsubstantiated by the known facts," according to the report.

The staffer is described as confused, and sometimes disoriented, throughout the report.

"Her answers to questions frequently were unresponsive and interjected irrelevant information," the report reads. "She did not appear evasive, rather it was a disconnected narrative that was occasionally internally inconsistent."

It is unclear whether she continues to work for Govan, or elsewhere in the House.

Investigatory report following complaint

Govan was first elected to his District 95 seat in 1992. He is one of a total of three state House members accused of sexual misconduct or harassment in the past five years. Two other state representatives, Edward Southard of Moncks Corner and Nelson Hardwick of Horry County, resigned after allegations against them surfaced.

Calls and e-mails to the S.C. House Democratic Caucus were not returned.

Theresa Johns, Govan's attorney, says that her client is not "similarly situated" with his former colleagues.

"In regards to the unwanted hug, I believe that there was an issue that came out and that's been taken care of," she said in a phone interview with CP. "There's not been anything that has gotten any more serious. It was a misunderstanding with regard to that. It had nothing to do with any kind of sexual overtones or any use of power in an authoritative position in any way."

In the same on the record interview with CP, Johns openly speculated about the staffer's identity, mentioning one person specifically by name. CP could not independently confirm the staffer's identity.

Govan currently serves as the first vice chair of the Operations and Management Committee. The chairman of that committee, currently Rep. Garry R. Smith, is one of three main individuals who oversee sexual harassment complaints per the No Harassment policy. The other two are Speaker Lucas and House Clerk Charles Reid.

In an unrelated matter, Govan was arrested in November and charged with assault and battery in the third degree following a May 11, 2017 altercation with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a fellow Orangeburg Democrat, in a conference room at the Statehouse.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson issued a warrant for Govan's arrest after Cobb-Hunter filed an official complaint with the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

"The defendant did approach the victim yelling at her 'Don't put words in my mouth,' which made the victim extend her arm out to keep Mr. Govan from getting any closer to her," according to the warrant. "Mr. Govan then grabbed the right wrist area and twisted, causing the victim to also fall back."

An investigation was also conducted by an outside law firm, according to The State, and ended in a letter from Speaker Lucas urging his coworkers to remain "civil."

"I really didn't appreciate the patronizing tone of the speaker's letter," Cobb-Hunter said in an interview with The Orangeburg Times & Democrat. "I didn't need the speaker's letter to tell me to be civil."

Cobb-Hunter did not respond to a request for comment.

Govan later told reporters that he did not initiate the altercation, saying that he was "struck in the face" first. A trial is scheduled for next month.

That wasn't the first time Govan was party to a physical altercation in the state Capitol. In 2004, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Harrison and Govan both said that staffers had to separate them after a confrontation, according to The Post & Courier. Govan was subsequently removed from the Judiciary Committee by then-Speaker David Wilkins.

The 60-year-old lawmaker is poised to win his Democratic primary against Kevin Ray and Gene Gartman, Jr. on Tuesday. The winner of that primary will face Republican Chester D. Palmer, who is running unopposed.

The S.C. Democratic Party declined to comment.

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