Top Dem in Tennessee Senate Race Has Record of Covering Up Sexual Assault Allegations

As governor, Phil Bredesen's office covered up details of harassment allegations against top officials

Phil Bredesen / Getty Images
December 8, 2017

Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen, a top party recruit who announced his Senate campaign on Thursday morning, was criticized for hiding details of sexual assault investigations into his top officials during his tenure as the state's governor.

The campaign announcement by Bredesen, who was Tennessee's governor from 2003 through 2011, came just hours before Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) announced he would be resigning due to allegations of sexual misconduct and amid the ongoing examination of the way workplace harassment claims are handled in Congress.

That sort of examination already took place in Tennessee while Bredesen was governor. It found that Bredesen's administration treated harassment allegations differently when they were directed at top political appointees, with investigators being directed to shred any documentation of the accusations.

The Tennessean, a Nashville-based publication owned by Gannett, first began investigating the ethical processes of Bredesen's office after the May 2005 news that a top official appointed by Bredesen was being suspended for workplace harassment. Reporting on the incident proved difficult as state investigators shredded all the notes taken during the investigation, with the top investigator admitting to being "keenly aware" that documentation could later be requested as public records.

The details of the 2005 harassment claims against Mack Cooper, Bredesen's senior adviser for legislation and policy, were never revealed.

Bredesen denied that shredding documents was part of a "cover up." Instead he argued it was part of an effort to protect the identities of victims. He admitted, however, that there was no way to prove his point.

"There's nothing to be covered up here," Bredesen told the AP in reference to the Cooper case. "I don't have any way of proving that to you."

Equally damning for Bredesen's office was the case of Quenton White, appointed commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Corrections by Bredesen shortly after he was elected governor in 2002.

White resigned from the post in July 2005, just two months after Cooper's suspension, due to "mounting questions about a sexual harassment allegation against him, his handling of a sexual harassment case against his executive assistant, and circumstances surrounding his relationship with a former subordinate," the Tennessean reported.

White, reporters discovered, had been accused of sexual harassment a year before his resignation. Bredesen confirmed the 2004 sexual assault allegation but said investigators found "no corroboration" of the claim.

Bredesen again had to explain to reporters, however, that he could not give any proof for his statement because the top investigator shredded her notes and had no written report on what was found.

The incidents sparked investigations into whether shredding of documents relating to sexual assault was common throughout state government or whether it was unique to political appointees.

"The governor's office has become involved in a select number of workplace harassment complaints against top state officials and has put them under a veil of secrecy that does not apply to ordinary state workers, a Tennessean review of case files shows," the paper wrote in July 2005 after finding that shredding of documents was common for investigations into officials at the level of Cooper and White.

The AP, which conducted its own thorough review of workplace harassment in Bredesen's office, came to a similar conclusion.

"In a review last year of 602 workplace harassment case files across all levels of state government, the AP reported that documents were shredded only in high-profile cases," the AP similarly found around the same time.

The Tennessean's then editor, Everett J. Mitchell II, slammed Bredesen's secrecy on high-profile cases, writing in his paper, "How is the public to be assured that the problem has been appropriately and adequately addressed if the public business is done in secrecy?"

Mitchell argued "the shredding of documents raises the specter there was more to it and that there was something to hide."

The paper even sued the state of Tennessee for access to sealed sexual harassment files, but had its case dismissed by a state judge who ruled Bredesen could withhold documents on grounds of attorney-client privilege. Bredesen had previously told the paper he would "consider" opening withheld case files.

Amid the scrutiny into his handling of sexual harassment allegations, Bredesen directed his administration to end its practice of shredding documents. He also ordered his administration to treat all harassment investigation the same way, no matter who was accused.

Bredesen acknowledged at the time that sexual harassment was a widespread problem in state government but said it was not unique to his administration.

"Anytime you mix men and women together in a work environment there's going to be issues," Bredesen said in July 2005.

Bredesen's campaign did not respond to inquiries into his current thoughts on how workplace harassment claims should be handled.

Election watchers are treating Bredesen's entrance into the race as a huge boost for the party, with the Cook Political Report moving the race into its "toss up" column after the announcement. The New York Times wrote Thursday that the announcement gives Democrats "more hope of retaking the Senate" in 2018.

Guy Cecil, a top Democratic strategist who notably called for Franken and other lawmakers accused of sexual assault to resign last week, called Bredesen's entrance a "game changer."