By Ronnie Ellis
TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
An investigation by House colleagues into charges of sexual harassment against former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, is apparently over without any action taken against him by the House.
Rep. Jeff Donahue, D-Louisville, who chaired a committee of three Democrats and two Republicans, told the full House Tuesday the committee’s legal counsel advised it had no jurisdiction to expel or censure Arnold once the Union County lawmaker resigned his seat.
The two Republicans on the committee — Richard Benvenuti of Lexington and Julie Raque Adams of Louisville — disagreed and said so, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who appointed the committee, said there really is nothing the House can do to punish Arnold once he’s “no longer a member of the body.”
The allegations against Arnold came to light during an August special session to re-draw legislative maps, but after Stumbo appointed the committee, Arnold ultimately resigned in September. The committee continued to meet but took no action other than to employ an attorney, former Deputy Attorney General Patrick Hughes.
Benvenuti and Adams called on the committee during those meetings to offer all legislative staff the opportunity to appear before the committee if they wished to share other complaints but Donahue and Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, argued the committee’s charge was simply to investigate the allegations against Arnold.
In December, upon the advice of Hughes, the committee voted on party lines to end its work in light of Arnold’s investigation. Donahue also said any testimony the committee took might prejudice civil suits brought by the female legislative aides against Arnold.
Donahue again on Tuesday said the committee “had no jurisdiction” once Arnold had resigned. He told the full House that a majority of the committee, “agreed with independent counsel that Franklin Circuit Court is the proper place for a full hearing on this important issue.”
Benvenuti then told the House he “strongly disagrees with the majority” of the committee, saying the committee had not conducted a “thorough and complete investigation.”
“Unfortunately, this committee chose — in my opinion — to hide behind a legal opinion,” he said. While that opinion was well-reasoned, Benvenuti said, it did not prevent a more thorough investigation.
Adams also took to the floor to disagree with the majority of the committee, suggesting the consistent 3-2 votes were partisan in nature.
The other two Democrats on the committee responded, defending the committee. Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said Stumbo’s petition forming the committee clearly set the committee’s job to recommend censure or expulsion. But, he said, it became apparent some on the committee “sought to go beyond the scope beyond the petition to go on a hunting expedition.”
Arnold said sexual harassment is an abomination but the committee’s charge was to consider only whether to expel or censure Arnold and urged his colleagues to put the matter behind them and focus on issues facing the commonwealth such as the need for more funding for education.
Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, also defended the decision of the committee majority, saying both the committee’s attorney and the attorney for the governing arm of the legislature both advised the committee that any attempt “to compel testimony would interfere with the court case.”
“I don’t know what else they could or could not have done,” Stumbo said afterward, recounting the time in 1991 he served on a House committee which presented articles of impeachment against a sitting agriculture commissioner.
Stumbo said as the committee headed down the capitol hallway to begin the trial of the commissioner before the Senate, word came that the official had resigned and the proceedings ended without a trial.
He said the Arnold case is similar.
“Once the resignation is done, then the body itself either individually or jointly loses the power to sanction,” Stumbo said. “We can’t send him to jail — that’s up to the courts. We can’t make him pay restitution. All we could have done is to censure or expel him.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.