By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
The 16-legislator leadership of the General Assembly held a sometimes contentious, confusing and occasionally bizarre meeting Wednesday to discuss allegations of sexual harassment leveled by two legislative employees against Rep. John Arnold.
The Legislative Research Commission is made up of leaders from both parties and chambers, co-chaired by the Senate President and House Speaker and employs the professional staff that assists the General Assembly.
Wednesday’s meeting was called to hear LRC Director Bobby Sherman’s explanation of the status of an internal investigation into claims by Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner that Arnold made lewd and vulgar comments and touched them inappropriately. (CNHI usually does not identify victims of sexual offenses, but the women appeared at the hearing and identified themselves to reporters who questioned their attorney, Thomas Clay.)
The LRC met for six hours but took no action and announced no findings, according to Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. The last four hours were conducted behind closed doors with Democratic house members refusing to participate.
During the two-hour public portion of the meeting, Sherman laid out a timeline of complaints and investigation, but he was careful not to disclose other details, citing fears of litigation and confidentiality concerns.
Sherman said he received the women’s complaints on Feb. 19 and immediately informed Arnold, meeting with the Union County lawmaker the next day and with “relative witnesses.” A week later, his staff interviewed the women. He said the women and Arnold were informed the following day, Feb. 28, of the investigation’s findings.
Clay said later his clients have still not been informed of any findings or action taken.
In June, Sherman hired Cheryl Lewis, who has practiced employment law for over two decades, to assist in the investigation. Also in June, Sherman said, a third complaint was filed and his office began an investigation.
Under questioning from Republican lawmakers, Sherman said he did not discuss the investigation with House leaders other than to inform Speaker Greg Stumbo’s staff that the investigation was proceeding.
Stumbo has released a series of emails from his staff to Sherman that direct Sherman to investigate the complaints and report back when the investigation was complete.
Sherman said discussing the investigation in open session could “have a chilling effect” on employees’ willingness to come forward with allegations in the future.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, then moved to close the meeting but Stumbo objected, saying there had been no direct threat of litigation and no indication that an employee faced dismissal or discipline.
Eventually, the lawmakers voted 10-5 to close the meeting, with all five House leaders – Stumbo, Rocky Adkins, Larry Clark, Tommy Thompson and Sannie Overly – voting no. All the Republicans and two Democratic Senators – Johnny Ray Turner and Minority Leader R.J. Palmer – voted to close the meeting.
Stivers said the meeting would be recorded. Stumbo then said he would not attend because he thought it was improper and he and the other House members left the room.
Clay said his clients “want this meeting to be open. We think the findings should be public.” He suggested closing the meeting was an effort to hide the details of Arnold’s behavior and that of other unnamed lawmakers.
“The LRC is trying to conceal results of allegations of misconduct on the part of Rep. Arnold as well as other potential complaints or past complaints that have been lodged against other legislators,” Clay said.
But Sherman said during the meeting’s open session there is “no rampant” problem of sexual harassment in the legislature and this is the first complaint by staff employed by party leadership.
Clay declined to offer an explanation why Democratic House members, for whom the women worked, voted to keep the meeting open while Republicans wanted wanted it closed.
He said his clients may file suit, but he wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a negotiated settlement either.
After the meeting ended, Stumbo issued a statement: “In today’s meeting of the Legislative Research Commission, we, the members of the house Democratic Leadership, argued for the facts to be out in the public, and for the process to be transparent. We heard the LRC Director testify that appropriate action had been taken by me and our current House leadership staff when we first learned of the complaint in February. That should dispel any rumors that we did not carry out our duty.”
When news first broke of the allegations Stumbo said he’d heard “only rumors” of the complaints. Then later, he released the emails which indicated his staff was aware of an investigation as early as February.
Stivers wouldn’t disclose much from the closed meeting with Sherman, Lewis and other LRC staff.
“We had quite a bit of information delivered to us and beyond that I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to comment,” Stivers said.
Arnold, 69, was not present and has refused to comment on the allegations. LRC staff has no authority to discipline an elected lawmaker. Only the full House, by a two-thirds vote, can do so.
Stumbo has appointed a five-member committee of House members to investigate the allegations and has said the full House could vote to censure or expel Arnold when it convenes in January.
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.