House Democrats rush to contain scandal as more names and another harassment complaint emerge

08/22/2013 08:34 PM

House Democrats moved Thursday to implement reforms to guard against sexual harassment in the Capitol even as more details — including names of other legislators — raised more questions about relationships between staffers and lawmakers.

One lawmaker — Rep. Reginald Meeks, who witnessed one of the incidents of assault — said on the House floor Thursday that legislators must move swiftly to change a “culture” that gives a “wink and a nod” to harassing behavior.

The behavior of Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, remains at the center of the scandal. Detailed complaints to the Legislative Ethics Commission by two legislative staff members outline allegations of inappropriate touching and comments made by Arnold between 2010 and 2013. WFPL first reported the complaints Wednesday. A third staff member filed a complaint with the commission Thursday alleging similar conduct by Arnold dating back to 2009, as the Herald-Leader first reported .

Arnold has declined to talk to reporters and wasn’t present at Thursday’s meeting of the special session dealing with redistricting.

The complaints paint a picture of repeated verbal abuse of the staff members and assault, in which one staff member said Arnold hit her on the buttocks in February 2013. Copies the first two complaints were provided to Pure Politics by Thomas Clay, the attorney for two of the staffers, Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper.

The complaint also says one former House Democratic leader ignored Costner’s initial attempt to report an incident from March 2010 in which Arnold grabbed her underwear. Costner’s complaint said she told then-Democratic Whip John Will Stacy of Morgan County about the incident, which was witnessed by Meeks. Stacy told Costner that Arnold “was harmless,” according to the complaint.

Stacy declined an interview on Thursday.

The complaint also included other instances of drama that pointed to blurred lines between staffers and lawmakers. It describes a March 2012 ransacking of the workspace of the then-secretary for Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps. According to the complaint, a copy of a sexually explicit text sent by Hall to the secretary was left behind. Hall denied having an inappropriate relationship with his then-secretary but he confirmed the ransacking of her workspace. He said it was the result of being “in the process of a divorce,” adding that his office was wrecked as well.

The complaint said House leadership later transferred the woman out of Hall’s office suite. And in April 2013, she moved to a job at the Transportation Cabinet, which Hall said was her choice.

The executive secretary position she is now in pays $35,080 a year, according to Kentucky government salary data.

House leaders, though, took to the floor Thursday afternoon in an effort to quell a growing unrest among rank-and-file Democrats angry about the harassing behavior outlined in the complaints.

The House approved a resolution offered by Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, requiring sexual harassment training for lawmakers during their annual mandatory ethics session at the start of each General Assembly. The measure was largely symbolic because this week’s special session is limited to the issue of redistricting only. But lawmakers pledged to pass the resolution again in 2014.

Both Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo and House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins told Pure Politics on Thursday morning they would support such an effort.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sannie Overly, D-Paris and the first female Democratic House leader, announced she will sponsor a bill to “maintain the highest level of workplace protection for all of its employees.”

And Stumbo made a lengthy floor speech to answer accusations that top-ranking House Democratic leaders failed to act swiftly when informed of the allegations earlier this year. And he said the House could vote to expel Arnold but that he — and anyone else — deserves “due process.”

But that wasn’t good enough for some, such as Meeks, who was present when Arnold grabbed Costner’s underwear in the 2010 incident. Meeks, according to the complaint, immediately chastised Arnold for the inappropriate action.

Meeks initially praised Stumbo for his “honesty” but said he was “underwhelmed” by the degree to which Stumbo addressed a “culture that may or may not exist here at the capitol that allows that kind of activity to continue unabated.”

Even the notion of requiring sexual harassment prevention training rings hollow, Meeks said.

“I don’t know why someone needs to be trained to be decent to other human beings,” he said.

Adkins, the majority floor leader, said he first learned of the allegations against Arnold in February when Cooper, who works in his office, approached him about it.

Earlier in the day, Adkins told Pure Politics he would suggest an “action team” to review all of the legislative branch’s policies regarding the handling and prevention of sexual harassment.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said Thursday morning he had not yet spoken to House leaders about the allegations against Arnold. He stopped short of calling for Arnold’s ouster. And he said he doesn’t believe there is “a sweeping” situation of inappropriate behavior that politically could cost Democrats the House, which they control 55-45.

(Ryan Alessi contributed to this report.)

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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