Lawmaker on committee investigating Rep. Arnold: This is no place for politics

08/30/2013 05:04 PM

Republican Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a former state inspector general, said the five-member panel charged with investigating the conduct of Rep. John Arnold is needed to “protect the integrity” of the House and will be insulated from politics.

“Maybe I’m naive. I don’t believe our work will take a political overtone,” said Benvenuti, one of five members House Speaker Greg Stumbo appointed. “How other people use it — that’s a different story. But this is no place for politics.”

The five-member committee will investigate allegations brought by three House Democratic staff members that Arnold, a Democrat from Union County, inappropriately touched them and made sexual comments to them.

Stumbo filed a petition Thursday laying the groundwork for a panel to investigate Arnold’s actions and potentially censure or expel him from the legislature.

In addition to Benvenuti, the Lexington Republican lawmaker, the other four members of the panel will be:

  • Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington
  • Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond
  • Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville
  • Rep. Julie Adams, R-Louisville

No first meeting date has been set yet, Benvenuti said. And the group will have to decide how much of their work will be open to the public, as well as how broad of scope to take in the investigation, including whether to follow any leads about incidents involving other lawmakers, Benvenuti said.

The group will make a final report to the House of Representatives during the 2014 regular session, which begins in January.

Benvenuti said he wouldn’t address any specifics about the case.

But he said

“I thin it’s important for the credibility of all House members for the public to see that the House can police itself,” Benvenuti said.

Some, including Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson, have expressed skepticism that Stumbo’s approach could be a way to contain the political damage or deflect blame.

But Benvenuti said the committee’s work will only be one of several potential organizations investigating the allegations. The Legislative Ethics Commission, for instance, already is investigating the complaints brought by the three staff members, but that organization can only fine a lawmaker and recommend actions such as censure or expulsion.

“It’s not like this is going to be an exclusive investigation,” he said. Benvenuti served as inspector general of the Health and Family Services cabinet from 2004 to 2007 under then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The inspector general’s office often investigated in parallel the same allegations as law enforcement agencies.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers issued a statement Friday saying that the panel has a “sober task” but is concerned that the scope of the committee’s work could be limited.

“The problem is that this panel has no authority to discover what culture has evolved in the House that Representative (Tom) Riner spoke of, if indeed anyone attempted to impede or interfere with any investigation thereof, and finally, what liability the legislature as a whole has in the face of potential lawsuits,” Stivers said. “Without the ability to ask and answer these questions, we have no way of determining what corrective action is needed.”

Stivers also said he hopes the LRC meeting of legislative leaders scheduled for Sept. 4 will “shed light” on potential legal liabilities for the legislature.

Stumbo, on Thursday, also sent a letter to the other 99 members of the state House explaining his decision to file the petition as a way to give the full House an opportunity to look at the evidence against Arnold.

“The Constitution gives each chamber of the General Assembly authority to determine its rule of proceedings and to punish a member for disorderly behavior and, with a two-thirds vote, to expel him or her,” Stumbo said in the letter to House members Thursday. “As I said last week during the special session, I believe strongly that due process is crucial in legal matters, but we need to be ready if the findings show that these acts did indeed take place. This is not a decision I take lightly, and it needs to be resolved quickly.”

(-Jacqueline Pitts contributed to this article)

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