KET Legislative Coverage

Day 58: House Democrats Propose Response to Staff Harassment

by Renee Shaw | 04/15/14 4:30 PM

Criticism over the handling of sexual harassment complaints against a former House member has quietly percolated through this legislative session. Last week an ethics panel cleared former State Rep. John Arnold of those claims. Yesterday, House Democrats offered a remedy they believe will protect legislative workers from abuse and lewd workplace conduct.

The proposal also clarifies the jurisdiction of the Legislative Ethics Commission to address misconduct by former lawmakers whose bad behavior happened while in office, diversifies the commission, and addresses unfilled vacancies and attendance policies. Rep. Joni Jenkins (D-Shively) offered the plan as a floor amendment attached to Senate Bill 234 relating to victims of sex offenses.

Last week, the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) fell one vote shy of reprimanding Arnold for sexually harassing three African-American female staffers. The vote was 4-1 to find Arnold guilty but five votes were needed to sanction him. All of the commission members are white, and three panel members were not present at the meeting. (Another seat on the commission has been vacant for more than a year.) Arnold, a Democrat from Union County, resigned his seat last fall after the allegations became public.

On the House floor Monday, Jenkins explained how her amendment addresses diversity and absenteeism on the ethics commission.

The plan requires LEC members to attend at least half of commission meetings or face removal. Jenkins said the changes will also strengthen the panel's appointment process, and clarify the accountability of current and former legislators in their interactions with Legislative Research Commission staff.

Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville) worked on the proposal with Jenkins. He said he was outraged and confused by the LEC vote that let Arnold off the hook.

Rep. Reginald Meeks (D-Louisville) said he was also disappointed by the panel's verdict but not surprised by it. Meeks witnessed Arnold inappropriately grab the undergarments of one of the victims. He said the LEC's actions demoralizes legislative staff and degrades the integrity of the institution.

Public Outcry Forces Action
Rep. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) challenged a comment made about the intolerance of harassment in the General Assembly. She said public pressure finally forced the Democratic leadership in the House to address the issue.

Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown) said he questioned from day one who had knowledge of the sexual misconduct, when did they learn about the allegations, and what did they do about it. He argued the proposed floor doesn't do anything that isn't already permitted.

House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly (D-Paris) offered a rebuttal to the GOP criticism. Overly also said the plan gives the Legislative Ethics commission instructions on how to police lawmakers and makes it clear that the misconduct of legislators, including sexual harassment, must be addressed by the LEC even if that lawmaker has left office.

Overly refuted assertions that she has evaded a subpoena or refused to testify in the case. A legislative panel last year declined to censure Representative Arnold because he had resigned.

The House passed the amended SB 234 with a vote of 99-0. The chamber also adopted a resolution initiated by Rep. Tom Riner (D-Louisville) to recognize the courage of the three women who reported the harassment: Yolanda Costner, Cassandra Cooper, and Gloria Morgan. There was concern that the resolution would affect a pending civil lawsuit, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) reversed himself and adopted the resolution later in the day.

Last week, Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law House Bill 28, which mandates sexual harassment training for all members of the Kentucky General Assembly.

Today is the last day of the 2014 regular legislative session, and many measures still await resolution. Tune into KET tonight at 11:30 p.m. for news about today's developments on Legislative Update. Follow me on Twitter @ReneeKET.