- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House Ethics Committee is publicly pursuing allegations that former Rep. Edward Southard sexually harassed several women at the Statehouse.

The committee found probable cause Tuesday that Southard violated House policy that prohibits harassment. The 9-0 vote comes a month after the 69-year-old married Republican resigned amid the then-confidential investigation, saying he wanted to protect his family.

He remains on the ballot - unopposed - to potentially regain his Berkeley County seat in November. He told The Post and Courier newspaper on Monday he should have fought the allegations rather than resign.

“I was told if I resigned, the case would be closed and never brought up again,” Southard, R-Moncks Corner, said Tuesday. “They never told me to take my name off the ballot.”

The committee’s finding made the allegations public and provided for a public hearing.

Redacted documents released after the vote show two House pages and a lobbyist complained this year that Southard’s comments, hugs and touching on places like their knee or arm made them uncomfortable.

Southard, first elected to the House in 2010, said he’s disappointed but declined to respond to specific allegations.

“I don’t know what the rush was to do that,” he said of the vote. “I am exploring all my legal rights.”

House Speaker Jay Lucas warned Southard in February not to “hug, touch or otherwise encroach upon the personal space of any House staff, employee or member” after the initial complaint by a House page.

Lucas told Southard that he violated policy against unwelcome and intentional physical contact, regardless of his intentions.

“Hereafter if I learn of a single instance regarding your behavior or actions, I will take all appropriate corrective steps necessary,” Lucas said in a letter he required Southard to sign.

But in March, another page complained that Southard put his hand on her leg and squeezed while telling her she was doing a great job, made random comments about her beauty and asked her to “push the button” for him during roll call votes. Others interviewed about the complaint noticed the page “looking very uncomfortable, fidgety and upset” while at Southard’s desk, according to a preliminary investigation report.

Southard told interviewing attorneys he didn’t recall calling the page a queen or telling her she was beautiful but acknowledged he similarly compliments women, and the comments would not have been malicious.

In April, a lobbyist complained Southard grabbed her arm in the parking garage under the Statehouse and asked her to “go out with me.” She said Southard repeatedly apologized after she told him to let go. There were no witnesses. She also said Southard previously told her over lunch at a Waffle House that she should have lunch with him more often.

She could not recall exact dates but said she decided to come forward after learning of the investigation and thinking “it’s got to stop.”

The attorney’s report said the lobbyist’s “quintessential ‘she said/he said’” complaint can’t be considered in isolation.

The committee’s possibilities include a public reprimand and a $2,000 fine per violation.

Former Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach resigned from the House last May after being accused of sexual harassment.

He was indicted last fall on allegations he used his position to lure a House employee to his office and inappropriately touch her against her will.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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