Michelle Nunn has an EEOC problem, and she doesn’t want to talk about it.
The Georgia Democrat, currently running for U.S. Senate, has refused to discuss two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints that were identified as potential liabilities by her own strategists in a leaked campaign memo. The complaints were filed against the Points of Light charitable foundation while Nunn served as its CEO. Instead, she has referred local reporters and lawmakers to public records of the issue — which cannot, according to one expert, be made public.
Her attempts to downplay the complaints have raised charges that Nunn, who has made workplace fairness and transparency major themes of her campaign, is not living up to her own standards.
Nunn initially denied any knowledge of the complaints and then, when pressed further, told a local reporter that “public records” show that the EEOC “never found any issue with” her or the Points of Light Foundation, which was founded by George H. W. Bush in 1990.
But complaints filed with the EEOC are not public records, according to a former general counsel for the federal agency, and cannot be made public.
“The answer is no, they’re not public — they can’t be,” says Ron Cooper, who served as EEOC general counsel during the George W. Bush administration and is currently a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Steptoe & Johnson. The agency’s officers and employees do not have the legal authority to release any information on the complaint unless a lawsuit is filed, and EEOC employees who violate that prohibition would face criminal liability and penalties ranging from a fine to prison time, Cooper says.
The EEOC, founded in 1965, is the federal agency responsible for enforcing laws against discrimination in the workplace. Even the status of EEOC complaints is confidential — that is, the agency cannot say whether a complaint has been dismissed or has yet to be resolved. Cooper says that, given the agency’s well-known backlog, the “odds favor the latter,” though Nunn’s assertion that the agency made no findings against her or Points of Light suggests the former.
Because no lawsuit has been filed against either Nunn or the Points of Light Foundation, unless either Nunn or the parties that brought the claims choose to discuss the matter, the records will remain confidential.
But Cooper says there are no legal provisions preventing her from answering reporters’ questions. “She’s free to say whatever she wants to say about the charge and the underlying facts,” Cooper says.
On the campaign trail in Georgia, where she continues to lag her Republican opponent, the businessman David Perdue, by three points, Nunn has made workplace fairness a central talking point. She has highlighted a gender-discrimination lawsuit that was filed against Dollar General while Perdue served as CEO of the discount chain and has slammed him for opposing laws that “provide equal-pay protections for women.”
Nunn herself, however, has been cagey when it comes to disclosing Points of Light’s own employment practices. When asked about the EEOC complaints by a local television station last month, Nunn said she was unaware of the complaints. “I’m hearing this from you for the first time,” she said.
Days later, a group of female Republican state lawmakers held a press conference calling for greater transparency from Nunn about the nature of the complaints, noting they had been mentioned in the memo.
When pressed again about the issue in an interview with a different local station the following week, she acknowledged the complaints but refused to divulge further details. “There’s nothing to come clean on — there’s nothing to talk about there,” she said, referring reporters to public records on the matter.
The Nunn campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Perdue says that Nunn owes it to voters to be more transparent and share the complaints’ details. “If there’s nothing to hide, why won’t Michelle Nunn voluntarily release that information?” says Megan Whittemore, communications director for the Perdue campaign. “Georgians are tired of Washington politicians who say one thing and do another. The people of Georgia deserve to know the whole truth.”
With Election Day less than a month away, Perdue continues to hold a lead over Nunn in one of the few competitive races that would allow Democrats to pick up a seat: With the retirement of incumbent Republican senator Saxby Chambliss, Nunn and Perdue are vying for an open seat. While most pollsters rate it as a toss-up, Perdue has led outside the margin of error in several recent polls.
Nunn’s time at Points of Light has served as the foundation of her campaign to highlight her bipartisan experience. But now at least one element of her tenure at the organization has become a possible liability, as she faces the same potential charges she has leveled against her opponent.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.