Fired LRC staffer looks to add House majority whip to lawsuit, seeks more info on past complaints

02/02/2015 07:27 PM

FRANKFORT —A judge will decide soon whether state House Majority Whip Johnny Bell can be added to a lawsuit filed by a woman he fired after restaffing his leadership office.

Yolanda Costner — a former adviser to Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, whom Bell ousted as whip in last month’s leadership elections — is accusing the Glasgow Democrat of retaliating against her because she’s suing the Legislative Research Commission for allegedly mishandling her sexual harassment complaints against former Rep. John Arnold.

In a court hearing Monday, Costner’s attorney, Thomas Clay of Louisville, argued that his client should have been shielded from termination through whistleblower protections. The LRC and Bell should be held accountable for their actions, he said.

Costner’s Jan. 21 firing dissolved an agreement between Clay and the LRC to seek a resolution through mediation, Clay said in a court hearing Monday.

“When an opposing party says, ‘Let’s try to work out our differences,’ and then they slap us in the face by firing one of the plaintiffs, that kind of undermines any good faith we think LRC might have by wanting the mediate,” Clay said during the hearing before Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate.

But Lexington attorney Leslie Vose, who is defending the LRC in Costner’s lawsuit, argued that Bell’s actions are separate from those raised in the original lawsuit. She said commingling Costner’s qualms with the LRC and Bell would be “inappropriate” since Bell never witnessed any of the allegations raised by Costner.

Vose, speaking to reporters after the hearing, also questioned Costner’s status as a whistleblower. She said Costner’s lawsuit focuses on civil rights violations and how the LRC’s work environment affected her.

“There’s a real question as to whether that is actually a whistleblower action or not, but the whistleblower law, and we cited it in our brief, is pretty clear that if what you’re complaining about is personal to you, you don’t get that particular status as a whistleblower,” she said.

Clay, also after the hearing, countered that Bell’s actions undermined the LRC’s ability to protect its employees and “violated Kentucky’s whistleblower act as well as Kentucky’s Civil Rights Act.”

What’s more, Clay said he has evidence that Bell promised to fire Costner as he campaigned for majority whip.

Bell’s attorney, Charles English of Bowling Green, declined to comment on Monday’s hearing when reached by phone Monday. He did not attend the proceeding, but he told Pure Politics he would “timely and appropriately respond to every allegation on behalf of Johnny Bell.”

Costner was one of three women who filed complaints alleging sexual harassment against Arnold, a Sturgis Democrat, in August 2013. The Legislative Ethics Commission found Arnold guilty of ethics violations last year, although he is appealing the ruling.

The allegations against Arnold have lingered unresolved, and Bell is the latest state representative ensnared in the messy situation. Costner not only accused Bell of making her termination a political point, but also charged that he wanted another woman in the role so he could pursue an intimate relationship with her, obtained Xanax from the woman and had been seen with a marijuana cigarette and moonshine on Capitol grounds.

According to documents obtained from the LRC through an open records request, Bell did not hire the woman in question to his three-person staff.

After more than 20 years of service at the LRC, Clay said Costner has not found work in the weeks following her dismissal and has begun the process of drawing her state pension. The LRC should have moved Costner to another position within the agency rather than terminating her, he said.

Vose, however, said Costner never requested a transfer or applied for a nonpartisan job after her partisan employment ended.

Clay also requested information on other sexual harassment investigations encompassing Arnold’s legislative career, which began in 1996. Wingate said he would rule on the matter by week’s end.

Vose said the agency provided general information on inquiries within the past five years as well as some additional details of the agency’s investigation into accusations against Arnold, such as those interviewed during the probe. However, those documents do not include a second investigation by Cheryl Lewis, an attorney who was hired by the LRC to ensure staff followed protocol in response to Costner’s and others’ allegations against the former lawmaker.

Lewis did not submit a formal report to legislative leaders, Vose said.

An extended view of past harassment complaints is necessary to establish a culture at the agency, Clay said. His motion, filed Thursday, also references Kent Downey, the former director of state House operations who was convicted on federal prostitution and gambling charges in 1997, and former Republican Senate President David Williams, now a circuit court judge.

During Monday’s hearing, Vose called Clay’s motion “a scorched-earth tactic” and “should not be acceptable to this court.”

Clay countered that his maneuver may be scorching the proverbial earth, “but it’s essential for us to be able to prove a culture under which these people have been operating for years.”

No such sordid culture exists at the agency, Vose contended afterward. The LRC has handled about a half dozen harassment complaints in the past five years, and aside from Arnold, one other lawmaker has been the subject of a grievance.

“In any workplace, you know, sometimes someone makes a joke and someone else thinks that’s not appropriate,” Vose told reporters. “A couple of times the supervising secretarial staff person took it upon herself to bring some concerns forward where the employees hadn’t even complained.”


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