By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
The Kentucky state capitol and General Assembly were still reeling Thursday from sexual harassment complaints filed by legislative employees against Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis.
Lawmakers and state officials had trouble staying ahead of the growing controversy, saying early in the day they didn’t think the problem is widespread, even as yet another complaint against Arnold was filed by a third employee.
WFPL Public Radio in Louisville, which broke the original story, reported Thursday that a third female employee of the Legislative Research Commission had filed a complaint against Arnold. WFPL identified the woman by name, but it is CNHI policy not to name victims of sexual abuse. Her complaint also alleged that LRC staff failed to respond to her initial complaints about Arnold.
Arnold was not at the capitol Thursday. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he hadn’t spoken with Arnold, but had been told Arnold left a message with the LRC desk indicating he would not be at Thursday’s or Friday’s General Assembly sessions.
Stumbo and others continued to defend the way they’d handled the complaints, which span a period extending back at least two years.
Stumbo released correspondence between his chief of staff and general counsel with LRC Director Bobby Sherman dating back to 2010 in which they insisted that rules governing workplace complaints established by the American Bar Association be implemented.
Another memo to Sherman in 2011 indicated there was word of a complaint and insisting that LRC employees be protected and that the Speaker’s office be kept informed of any investigation.
On Wednesday, WFPL published a story that two female LRC employees had filed complaints with the Legislative Ethics Commission against Arnold. Almost at the same time word spread through the capitol about the story, Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, spoke on the House floor commending the women for coming forward and decrying what they allege took place.
As he spoke, Arnold sat just a few seats away. Arnold left the House floor by a side door and down a back stairwell to avoid reporters.
Early Thursday at the Kentucky Farm Bureau Ham Breakfast, Gov. Steve Beshear said he would not “pre-judge” the allegations until the ethics commission had conducted its investigation. And he said he didn’t think the allegations are evidence of a widespread problem that might involve other lawmakers.
“I have no reason to believe these allegations to be broad-based at all,” Beshear said. “As far as I know, these are the only allegations that have been brought against anybody. So I don’t look at this as any kind of sweeping situation at all.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said if the charges prove to be true, the legislature should investigate, and if there is any evidence of an effort to “impede the investigation, then it also needs to be looked into.”
Meanwhile, a group of 17 female House members from both parties released a statement that said, “sexual harassment cannot and will not be tolerated.”
“We will await the results of the investigation and demand that during the process the employees who have brought these allegations forward be protected from any retaliation. We also expect the process to be thorough, fair and swift.”
One of the signers, House Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, released a separate statement that said when she learned of the allegations, she advised “those involved to use the procedures put in place by the LRC designed to deal with these types of issues.”
She said she will soon introduce legislation to ensure the LRC maintains the “highest level of workplace protection for all of its employees.”
Stumbo also spoke on the House floor Thursday afternoon about the controversy.
He said the allegations “rock this chamber and this institution” and the General Assembly “won’t tolerate that kind of behavior.” He promised “this matter will be dealt with seriously and employees protected.”
Later, Stumbo told reporters he didn’t know if Arnold planned to resign. He said while he has no power as speaker to discipline Arnold, the House acting as a body does have such power.
He said when the Arnold investigation has concluded, he wants an “independent evaluation done to be sure the director (Sherman) followed the policy and procedures.”
Stumbo was asked why such complaints are lodged with Sherman or the LRC if Sherman can’t discipline a legislator.
But Stumbo said the first responsibility of an employer is not to discipline the alleged abuser, but to protect the employee and his or her safety.
The House also passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, asking the Legislative Ethics Commission to make sexual harassment training part of the annual ethics training provided for lawmakers.
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 twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.