By Seth Littrell
Register News Writer
FRANKFORT — Leaders of the Kentucky General Assembly have hired Louisville attorney, Leslie P. Vose of Landrum and Shouse, to defend the legislature against allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation by three female employees.
Meanwhile, a House select committee named by Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to look into the allegations of sexual harassment against a former lawmaker wants to hire its own attorney, but it isn’t clear its five members view the scope of the committee’s investigation in the same way.
A second committee, the Joint Program Review and Investigations Committee, was scheduled to begin reviewing the LRC sexual harassment policy Thursday, but canceled the meeting because of the women’s suits in Franklin Circuit Court.
It all stems from allegations of sexual harassment against former lawmaker John Arnold, D-Sturgis, by two LRC employees and of retaliation by Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, by a third. All three alleged victims filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court. Arnold resigned his House seat on Sept. 13, but he and Coursey have denied the charges.
In the midst of the controversy, Legislative Research Commission Director Robert “Bobby” Sherman resigned after an internal investigation found no wrongdoing by the LRC.
Two days later, Sherman returned to his office and shredded documents in the presence of three other LRC employees, documents he said were unrelated to the investigation. The Kentucky State Police is investigating the shredding.
The governing arm of the General Assembly, the 16 leaders of the two parties in both chambers, has also ordered a review of the LRC and its policies by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the attorney who represents the three women who have filed suit, Thomas Clay, claims the problem of sexual harassment or misconduct extends beyond the allegations against Arnold and Coursey.
That might lead to a dispute among the three Democrats and two Republicans on the House committee about the scope of their investigation. Stumbo named the committee following the charges against Arnold but before those against Coursey came to light.
Wednesday, while discussing the procedure for hiring an attorney and taking testimony, Rep. Richard Benvenuti, R-Lexington, suggested the committee offer all LRC employees the opportunity to testify before the committee, in public or private at their choice.
But Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who, like Benvenuti, is an attorney, said the committee’s charge is to look specifically at the Arnold allegations and to suggest any policy changes. He said John Arnold may decline to testify before the committee which would mean the committee will only have the statements of his alleged victims.
“If we have proof of that and no rebuttal proof, what additional proof do we need?” Simpson asked.
Committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Donahue, D-Louisville, said the committee’s only job is to investigate the allegations against Arnold and to suggest policy changes.
Later, Donahue said the committee doesn’t have the authority to look into charges against Coursey or potentially new allegations against others.
“We have nothing to do with that,” Donahue said. “We have been given a task by our leadership to take a look at (the Arnold) case.”
Benvenuti didn’t dispute Donahue’s interpretation but said it “is not appropriate” to tell LRC staff they can’t speak about anything else. If they were to make additional allegations, Benvenuti said, it might raise a jurisdictional question for the committee but such allegations could be referred to the LRC.
Benvenuti also suggested hiring an investigator and to transcribe all testimony. The committee decided first to hire an attorney who will then advise the committee about its scope, process and the need for an investigator.
The committee is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 16 at which time it hopes to hire an attorney after reviewing resumes of attorneys submitted by individual committee members. Donahue also provided members with examples of sexual harassment policies of legislatures in other states.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, who co-chairs the Program Review Committee, said Thursday’s meeting was cancelled because the LRC sexual harassment policy “is the subject of pending litigation in Franklin Circuit Court, making this an inappropriate time to have this discussion.”
He said the committee will revisit the subject at a later meeting.
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.