TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

State News

December 6, 2013

Panel moving slowly in sexual harassment probe

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service

A special committee of state House lawmakers who are supposed to recommend action on charges against a former colleague met again Thursday — but it met behind closed doors only to tell reporters afterward its members decided “to move forward.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo appointed the committee of three Democrats and two Republicans in August following allegations by three female legislative staff employees that then Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, had sexually harassed them.

Arnold has maintained his innocence but he resigned his seat in September after Stumbo asked the committee to recommend action against him to the full House by Jan. 7. Among the actions he said the committee might consider were expulsion or censure. But with Arnold’s resignation, it’s not clear what the committee can do.

The committee has met previously but each time delayed action until it could contract with and secure legal advice from an attorney. Wednesday’s meeting was the first attended by Patrick Hughes, a partner in the northern Kentucky firm of DBL and a former Deputy Attorney General.

But moments after convening, the committee went into closed session with Hughes. After 45 minutes, reporters were allowed back in and told by committee chair Jeff Donahue, D-Louisville, the committee is asking Hughes to “prepare a legal analysis and recommendation regarding the on-going legal authority and jurisdiction of this committee in light of the resignation of John Arnold” and outside investigations by the Legislative Ethics Commission, Kentucky State Police and multiple civil suits.

Afterward, Donahue said the committee hasn’t gathered any specific information to this point but he still expects it to conclude its work by Jan. 7.

Reporters also quizzed Donahue on the legal justification of closing the meeting, since no legislative employee is facing disciplinary action or dismissal. He and Hughes then conferred, and Donahue said the exception to public meetings contained in statute allows closed meetings when discussing “discipline or dismissal of an individual employee or member.”

Arnold was a member of the House at the time of the allegations and when the committee was appointed.

Donahue also said the committee will not pursue information regarding the actions of anyone other than Arnold, although Rep. Richard Benvenuti, one of the two Republicans on the committee, had suggested the committee inform all legislative staff they could speak with the committee.

Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, is one of the committee members who previously expressed frustration with the slow pace of the committee’s work but she said Thursday she now has a better understanding of the caution demonstrated by Donahue in light of the civil suits filed by three legislative staff employees.

“I’m not so frustrated now because I understand and I have gained more perspective on the process,” Smart said. “We’re proceeding on.”

Thomas Clay, attorney for Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, the two women who first levied the allegations against Arnold and have filed a civil suit against him, attended Thursday’s meeting.

“I understand they are moving in a very deliberative pace, and that’s fine as long as we make progress,” Clay said.

Clay wants his clients to be given the opportunity to speak to the committee in private but he also called for the release of the findings of an internal investigation conducted by the Legislative Research Commission, the governing and staffing arm for the General Assembly.

“I don’t know why the results of that investigation can’t be released,” Clay said. “It should be a public record, and the public ought to have access to the information that was gathered as a result of that investigation.”

Clay said there allegations which involve other persons which should be made public and said he plans to file documents in the civil suit in Franklin Circuit Court “will contain a lot of allegations” which were acknowledged as true by former LRC Director Bobby Sherman who resigned after completion of the internal investigation.

Clay said there are also allegations against Arnold which involve “other LRC employees as well as other elected officials where Rep. Arnold’s conduct was inappropriate.” He would not identify those persons but said some of them will be named in the court documents he plans to file “in the next couple of days.”

Upon direct questioning, Clay said there was at least one allegation Arnold “inappropriately touched” a female lawmaker.

The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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