By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
State Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, who has been accused of sexual harassment by three employees of the legislature, has resigned from the General Assembly.
Steve Downey, Arnold’s attorney, told CNHI News the Union County lawmaker had resigned, despite an initial denial by Arnold.
CNHI briefly spoke with Arnold by phone Friday, and he said he had “not yet” resigned and referred questions to Downey.
But Downey confirmed the resignation.
“John was just confused when he spoke to you,” Downey said. “His health has not been good and he has resigned.”
Gov. Steve Beshear also confirmed Friday afternoon he’d received Arnold’s resignation letter.
“I have received Rep. John Arnold’s resignation, and I respect his decision to step aside so that our legislators can focus instead on the business of the state,” Beshear said in a statement. “I will begin reviewing the options for calling a special election to make sure the people of the 7th District will be represented in the 2014 session of the General Assembly.”
In his resignation letter to Beshear, Arnold cited his poor health, indicated he thinks he has done nothing wrong, but said he’d been rendered ineffective by the publicity surrounding the allegations.
“As you or anybody else who has been reading the newspapers realize, I have been destroyed politically,” Arnold wrote to Beshear. “After having been appropriately advised, I do not believe I am guilty of sexual harassment. But even if I mounted a vigorous defense to the administrative proceedings in Frankfort, and regardless of the outcome, I believe I would be an ineffective voice for my constituents in future sessions.
“In addition, I have been in poor health for some time now,” Arnold goes on to say, adding he was unable for health reasons to participate in the final two weeks of the 2012 regular session and he has concluded his health has “deteriorated to the point that I can no longer effectively represent my constituents.”
“For these reasons I want to resign now in order that my constituents my select a new representative,” Arnold writes. He goes on to say he “deeply regrets” his service in the legislature is ending because of the allegations and that his constituents and supporters “are greatly disappointed by these allegations.”
Three female employees of the legislature have filed sexual harassment complaints against Arnold with the Legislative Ethics Commission. Two, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner who work for Democratic House leadership, allege that Arnold made lewd and vulgar comments and touched them inappropriately.
The news was first published by WFPL, Louisville Public Radio, during a special session of the General Assembly during the week of Aug. 19-23. Subsequently, a third legislative employee, Gloria Morgan, filed a separate allegation against Arnold with the ethics commission.
The ethics commission will neither confirm nor deny ongoing investigations.
Thomas Clay, the attorney representing Cooper and Costner, said Arnold’s resignation may enable him to avoid having to appear before the ethics commission, but it won’t necessarily prevent litigation against Arnold.
“I think Rep. Arnold has taken this step to avoid having to go through a hearing before the ethics commission,” Clay said. “But I’m not sure it will resolve all his issues. He could still face liability issues for what could be construed as retaliation on his part.”
Clay also said the resignation itself doesn’t mean the Legislative Research Commission, the governing arm of the General Assembly made up of 16 legislative leaders and which employs around 350 legislative staff, won’t still face litigation.
“Thus far, the LRC has not come out with any investigation results or corrective action,” Clay said. “They’ve been totally unresponsive to the allegations.”
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, appointed a five-member select House Committee to investigate the charges against Arnold and to recommend to the full House whether to censure or expel Arnold when it meets in January.
That committee, made up of Democrats Rita Smart, Arnold Simpson, and Jeff Donahue and Republicans Julie Raque Adams and Richard Benvenuti, is scheduled to meet Tuesday.
The select committee is still scheduled to meet next week, Stumbo said Friday.
“The resignation of Rep. John Arnold does not change the fact that the House has appointed a special committee of investigation, and the only thing that will change is that the members will not have to make a recommendation of potential disciplinary action,” Stumbo said in a statement. “We look forward to that committee beginning its work and providing feedback to the House.”
The 16-member group of lawmakers that comprises the LRC met last week to hear a report from LRC Director Bobby Sherman on the progress of the investigation but took no formal action.
Sherman said he received two complaints on Feb. 19, 2013 and immediately informed Arnold, meeting with him the next day and with “relative witnesses.” A week later, Sherman’s staff interviewed Cooper and Costner. He said the women and Arnold were informed the following day, on Feb. 28, of the investigation’s findings.
Clay has said his clients have still not been informed of any findings or action taken.
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.