By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
For the third time in as many weeks, the House select committee looking into sexual harassment allegations against former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, met Wednesday without much happening.
At least this time, the committee voted to hire counsel: Patrick Hughes, a partner in the northern Kentucky and Cincinnati law firm Dressman Benzinger LaVelle. Committee chairman Jeff Donahue, D-Louisville, said the committee will negotiate with Hughes and the firm to determine the hourly rate or fee.
Hughes is a former deputy attorney general and also once worked with the state Cabinet for Finance and Administration.
But it was clear from some comments by committee members that not everyone thinks the committee is moving expeditiously.
Rita Smart, D-Richmond, said she’d spoken with some attorneys to see if they were interested in working with the committee who told her “we couldn’t do anything and it’s just a waste of time and taxpayer money.”
Donahue said he’d heard similar comments but the committee needed first to secure counsel before moving forward to ensure it didn’t intrude upon investigations by the Legislative Research Commission, the governing arm of the General Assembly, and the Legislative Ethics Commission or interfere with two civil lawsuits filed by two LRC employees.
Those two suits, one filed by Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner against Arnold and the legislature and a second by Nicole Cusic alleging Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, retaliated against her when she warned him about his alleged behavior toward other LRC staff and interns, have been filed in Franklin Circuit Court.
Both Arnold and Coursey deny the allegations and Coursey filed a countersuit against Cusic in Marshall Circuit Court alleging slander, libel and defamation by Cusic.
After Wednesday’s meeting Donahue said he is confident the committee will complete its work and make a full report to the General Assembly when it convenes in January.
“Absolutely,” Donahue said when asked if the committee will complete its work. “We have to have counsel and we have to make sure we don’t interfere with the civil lawsuits going on or other investigations. And we also have to protect ourselves and make sure we move forward properly. And we’ll get that done.”
Donhahue said the committee’s task is to report the results of its investigation back to the full House by January, “and we’ll live up to that.”
Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, conceded the committee has been somewhat frustrated by the pace of its proceeding thus far.
“But I feel that when counsel is hired and getting its footing, you’ll start to see progress being made,” Adams said.
Smart said she doesn’t think the committee is moving fast enough.
“We just come down here and talk about the same questions,” Smart said. But she agreed with the decision to hire Hughes to advise the committee and said she hopes to see more substantive progress now.
Donahue began the meeting by announcing that Leslie P. Vose, counsel hired by the LRC to defend the legislature in the civil suits, had asked the committee “to suspend its work” while the civil suits proceed.
“But my personal thought is that we should move forward,” Donahue said, and the committee agreed.
In the previous meeting, Rep. Richard Benvenuti, R-Lexington, asked the committee invite all LRC employees to share information they might have with the committee; that the committee hire an investigator to assist its counsel; and that all testimony be transcribed for the record.
Those requests were put aside without any action until the committee hired counsel. Donahue said again Wednesday he’d take those matters up once counsel is in place and advising the committee. But he said he didn’t think the letter is necessary because House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, had directed LRC to send all employees alerting them to the committee investigation.
Benvenuti said the letter he proposes differs from Stumbo’s because it seeks “information pertinent to our investigation.
“Our letter would explain the scope and obligation of our committee, asking folks if they had information that would be helpful to this committee and that they bring that information forward.”
Donahue said he’ll bring up Benvenuti’s suggestions at the next meeting after counsel is retained. That meeting is set for Oct. 23 at 1 p.m. in room 131 of the Capitol Annex.
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.