By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
A select committee of House members will proceed with an investigation into the conduct of one of their former colleagues despite that lawmaker’s resignation Friday.
Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, submitted his resignation to Gov. Steve Beshear on Friday in the wake of allegations by three female employees of the legislature that Arnold touched them improperly or made lewd or vulgar comments to them.
The women — Cassaundra Cooper, Yolanda Costner and Gloria Morgan — filed sexual harassment complaints against Arnold, 69, with the Legislative Ethics Commission.
News of the allegations became public midway during the Aug. 19-23 special session of the General Assembly, prompting Arnold to leave and not return for the final two days of the session.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, filed a petition to investigate Arnold’s conduct and potentially censure or expel him from the General Assembly. Stumbo appointed a five-member committee — Democrats Rita Smart, Arnold Simpson, and Jeff Donahue and Republicans Robert Benvenuti and Julie Raque Adams — to investigate the charges and report to the full House in January.
At Tuesday’s first official meeting, the committee selected Donahue as its chair by a 3-2 vote on party lines. Adams had nominated her fellow Republican, Benvenuti, who at one time worked as inspector general of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
The committee also agreed to seek outside legal counsel and to proceed with its investigation despite Arnold’s resignation.
The meeting began with Stumbo telling the committee its duty is to protect the integrity of the House, even if Arnold is no longer a member. His resignation, Stumbo said, eliminates the potential for expulsion, but the full House may still reprimand Arnold if the investigation produces evidence of his guilt.
“The conduct being investigated was conduct which occurred while he was a member of the General Assembly,” Stumbo said. “I believe you have to move forward, at least toward making a report to the House.”
Benvenuti agreed. He said if the committee fails to act, a legislator could escape responsibility for his actions simply by resigning.
“We shouldn’t allow someone to end an investigation by resignation,” Benvenuti said.
Stumbo told the committee he will approve the hiring of independent counsel or staff but left those decisions to the committee.
After Donahue assumed the chair, he suggested each committee member suggest up to three persons to serve as counsel to the group. The committee then set its first meeting for 1 p.m. on Oct. 9 when it hopes to choose an attorney.
Donahue said after the meeting he isn’t concerned about partisanship, that committee members and the House disapprove of the conduct alleged by the three women and wish to ensure the integrity of the chamber regardless of their party.
But the meeting couldn’t avoid at least an undercurrent of partisanship. Benvenuti and Adams suggested committee actions must be approved by a super-majority of four votes, but the three Democrats voted to require a simple majority of three.
Democrats currently hold a 54-45 majority in the House (with Arnold’s seat now vacant) and Republicans have set their sights on gaining control of the House in the 2014 elections. Some have suggested the allegations of sexual harassment and charges by some Republicans that Democrat leaders didn’t respond effectively to the allegations could play a role in the 2014 campaigns.
Arnold maintained innocence in his resignation letter: “After having been appropriately advised, I do not believe I am guilty of sexual harassment.”
Arnold has retained Steve Downey of Bowling Green as his attorney.
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 www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.