By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
The burgeoning sexual harassment controversy enveloping the General Assembly and its staffing arm, the Legislative Research Commission, took another turn Tuesday when three female LRC employees filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court.
Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner allege they were sexually harassed by former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, who resigned on Sept. 13. Their suit names Arnold, who has maintained he is innocent, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Legislative Research Commission and Greg Stumbo in his capacity as Speaker of the House.
Nicole Cusic filed suit against Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, charging he and legislative leaders retaliated after she complained to Coursey that he was sexually harassing legislative interns and LRC employees. Like Arnold, Coursey has vigorously denied the charge.
Cusic’s suit names as defendants Coursey, former LRC Director Robert “Bobby” Sherman and the LRC. Sherman resigned on Sept. 20 in the wake of a growing list of allegations of sexual misbehavior by lawmakers toward staff and following a lengthy internal investigation into the charges. Sherman has also denied any wrongdoing.
All three women previously filed complaints with the Legislative Ethics Commission and all are represented by Louisville Attorney Thomas Clay, who has said his clients’ complaints are just part of a “culture” of harassment, inappropriate behavior and intimidation in the LRC.
A fourth woman working for the LRC, Gloria Morgan, has filed a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Cooper and Costner also make a new charge in their lawsuit: that they were not paid for overtime hours they worked, a violation of the Kentucky Wages and Hours Act.
The two suits ask for unspecified monetary damages and attorney’s fees and seek a trial by jury. The defendants have 20 days from the dates they are served to file responses to the allegations. A lawsuit presents only one side of a controversy.
Stumbo’s only reaction was to say, “It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.” Stivers also issued a written statement.
“We have received the lawsuits and are reviewing them,” Stivers said. “It’s difficult for us to respond because the allegations were only brought to our attention in August during the special session. We do not condone anything alleged to have happened in these lawsuits. We are committed to providing LRC staff with a safe working environment. We will wait for the civil process to take its course.”
The suits fill in some details of already public allegations. According to the suit by Cooper and Costner, Arnold “groped Yolanda’s buttocks, grabbing her underwear” as she, Rep. Reginald Meeks and Arnold walked up the steps to the Capitol Annex.
When Costner complained to Rep. John Will Stacy, for whom she worked at the time, the suit alleges Stacy told her Arnold is “harmless and (Stacy) laughed off the entire incident.”
Costner also complained to House Democratic Whip Tommy Thompson who purportedly asked Arnold to stay out of the women’s office and not to smoke around them. Costner says she is allergic to tobacco smoke.
Cooper alleges Arnold “smacked her on the buttock” as she bent over to pick up a bottle of water. She reported the incident to Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Catlettsburg, and his communications director Susan Klimchak. Adkins purportedly then reported the incident to Stumbo and Sherman.
Costner also alleges she witnessed Arnold inappropriately touching other LRC employees. Both women say they complained to LRC Personnel Director Roy Collins who subsequently told Arnold to stay away from them, but Arnold continued to come to their office and smoke, one time even napping on a couch in the office.
Clay said legislative leaders and staff “did not take effective and timely corrective action to address their concerns.” He believes Arnold “had a history of prior sexual misconduct in his legislative capacity which went unanswered.”
Clay said he’s received “a flood of calls from people who are current or former LRC employees. They have expressed concerns; they have named names and the conduct, frankly, is shocking.” He said the callers allege “sexually harassing conduct in the workplace by a wide range of lawmakers.”
Cusic maintains she told Coursey – “out of concern for Coursey” – his inappropriate conduct was drawing attention and comments from other lawmakers and staff, but after her “good faith complaint,” Coursey stopped talking to her and went to Stumbo, asking that she be transferred. She was later transferred to a position in the Senate.
Costner and Cooper said they’ve each suffered health problems because of the alleged harassment and subsequent investigation and publicity. All three women said they filed suit in hopes of prompting a change to the “hostile culture” in the legislature.
“We just want a safe place for people to work,” Cooper said. “Just a professional workplace where you don’t have to worry about being harassed by other persons because of a title next to their names.”
The controversy is almost certain to grow. Lawmakers have called for an investigation into Arnold’s behavior, Sherman’s investigation and why Sherman was allowed to re-enter the Capitol and shred documents in his office after he’d resigned.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, has requested an investigation of the shredding by Kentucky State Police which has said it is investigating.
The 16-member governing arm of the LRC – leaders of both parties from both chambers – is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday to consider a replacement for Sherman and review the case thus far.
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.