Saturday, December 7, 2019  
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COVINGTON — Gov. Phil Bredesen put a halt to document shredding in the state Personnel Department after files were destroyed in two high-profile sexual harassment investigations.

Bredesen said he issued a memo Friday that orders Personnel Department officials not to destroy any more records.

"To protect people who would come forward, they were not going to keep notes or if they took notes they would destroy the notes," Bredesen said at an appearance in Covington.

Bredesen said he found out the notes were being shredded after he demoted his top lobbyist, Mack Cooper, in May following a sexual harassment complaint. In that case, Personnel Department lawyer Kae Carpenter said she shredded notes from interviews she conducted for the investigation.

This week's resignation of Correction Commissioner Quenton White brought to light another incident of shredded documents. White was investigated for sexual harassment in 2004, before the Cooper case, and the notes were destroyed after state officials found no merit to the claim.

Bredesen said he said he didn't think Carpenter violated the state open records law by shredding the records.

"As I understand it, they had no obligation to retain the records and people all the time in government take notes, obviously," he said. "If anyone asks for the records, they then have an absolute legal obligation to not destroy any records and to produce those records."

The Tennessean newspaper, which first reported on the shredded documents, reported this week that when it sought sexual harassment records from the Personnel Department, many files contained no documents or only a few pieces of paper.

The top Republican in the Legislature said Bredesen should have issued the "no shredding" order months ago.

"I guess better late than never," Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey said. "Maybe this is not a cover-up. But obviously when you shred documents it begins to look like it is. This is beginning to look like shredder-gate."

Bredesen said he still hopes to ask the next session of the Legislature to change state law to allow the names of those who complain or provide evidence in sexual harassment investigations to remain confidential.

"Until then, I said, there are pluses and minuses but you need to stop destroying records," Bredesen said.

House Minority Leader Tre' Hargett said the legislative task force looking at ethics legislation this summer may consider changing open records laws to address the release of harassment files.

"Throughout the process, I am going to make sure we maintain the confidentiality of the victim," Hargett said. "That's going to be my first priority of whatever comes forward."

Bredesen said there has been no special treatment in the Cooper and White cases because they are his political appointees.

"There was no political favoritism in this," the governor said. "If anything, I've probably been tougher on people who have been close to me."

Bredesen said he didn't know of any shredding problems in other state departments.

"When we get back (to Nashville) I'm going to see if there are other departments with which we need to do the same kinds of things," he said.

Bredesen, who has said state government has a significant problem with sexual harassment, said the order he issued Friday may discourage some victims from coming forward.

"But in the end the public's confidence that we're not doing anything wrong here is more important," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Matt Gouras in Nashville contributed to this story.