By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Former state lawmaker John Arnold will face no punishment from his House colleagues over charges he sexually harassed female employees of the General Assembly and a committee formed to look into the allegations will apparently not issue a report on the matter.
After the allegations against Arnold became public in August, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, appointed three Democrats and two Republicans to investigate and issue a formal report to the full House when it reconvenes in January. Arnold maintained his innocence but nonetheless resigned on Sept. 13.
The committee met behind closed doors Thursday for 30 minutes and when it emerged, voted along party lines to end its work.
Democrats Jeff Donahue, who chaired the committee, Arnold Simpson and Rita Smart voted to end the committee’s investigation after being advised by the committee’s attorney Patrick Hughes that it no longer had the authority to discipline Arnold in light of his resignation.
Republicans Richard Benvenuti and Julie Raque Adams protested, contending the committee’s charge was to investigate the allegations and to issue a report to the House.
“Do we deliver a report?” Adams asked. “Do we deliver a policy recommendation? What are we going to show? I don’t think it’s appropriate that we say, okay, we’re all done now.”
Donahue read a prepared statement, saying “Upon the advice of counsel, it appears the committee’s jurisdiction and legal authority arose solely out of the potential disciplining of a member of the House of Representatives. Since that member has resigned, this committee no longer has the jurisdiction or legal authority to discipline in any way or form John Arnold.”
He then said in order to save taxpayers’ money and to avoid interference with an investigation by the Legislative Ethics Commission and civil suits filed by Arnold’s accusers, “I’d like to entertain a motion that this committee adjourn and close its business.”
“We came back into open session and Chairman Donahue has a prepared statement based on what he wants to have happen and says do I have a motion. The whole thing is so not transparent,” Adams said.
Simpson said the committee’s charge was only to investigate Arnold’s behavior and possibly recommend expulsion from the House or censure. But since Arnold is no longer a member of the body, to continue investigating the charges would be “an exercise in futility.” He said the committee has no authority to look at allegations against others.
“I don’t believe that by conducting an investigation which we were charged to do and that by providing a report to the full House so that all members would have the information that we would be able to gather throughout our investigatory process would be an exercise in futility,” Benvenuti said. “I think it would be an exercise in transparency. And I believe it is an exercise in transparency that the taxpayers are owed.
“I’m firm in my belief that a complete and thorough investigation should be conducted and a report provided of that,” Benvenuti concluded.
He said the allegations surrounding Arnold were three-fold: “One that Arnold engaged in acts of sexual harassment; two, that at least some of those acts were reported to others in the House but not acted upon; and three, there is a culture in the House that allowed that.”
“Those were the allegations surrounding John Arnold, and months after we were empaneled, we are yet to interview a single witness or review a single document,” Benvenuti said.
Benvenuti has from the beginning sought to offer the legislature’s staff an opportunity to appear before the committee to share concerns or allegations they have about sexual misbehavior. He said while he found Hughes’ opinion “fair and well-reasoned,” the lack of power to compel testimony doesn’t prevent the committee from inviting potential witnesses to testify.
When asked through his spokesman for comment, Stumbo initially released the following statement: “The committee will make a report to the full House. Any action taken regarding the report will be a decision of the entire body.”
But, when his office was informed that the committee voted to end its work without issuing a report, Stumbo’s spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, responded by saying, “We have been told that Rep. Donahue will be issuing a report to the full House, and the Speaker’s statement reflects that since it was called for in the original petition. Beyond that, there is nothing our office can add since the committee has acted independently of this office since its formation.”
Arnold was accused of inappropriately touching and making lewd comments to three female employees, who subsequently filed complaints with the Legislative Ethics Commission, which continues to investigate. Two of the women, Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper also filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court against Arnold and the legislature.
CNHI News asked the legal office of the legislature for the cost of the committee’s deliberations but had not received a reply by press time. Hughes was hired at a rate of $125 an hour.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.