Legislative Ethics Commission processes under a microscope following Arnold decision
04/09/2014 03:45 PM
Legislators and state leaders have expressed near unanimous concern about the Legislative Ethics Commission — and are now questioning its appointment structure — in the wake of its vote regarding harassment charges facing former Representative John Arnold.
The commission, currently made up of eight members, contains an even number of appointees from both the speaker of the House and the Senate president with one vacant position that is supposed to be filled by an appointee agreed on by leaders of both chambers.
With only five members present at Tuesday’s meeting, four voted to charge Arnold with violating the legislative ethics code. And one member voted no.
After the hearing Tuesday, the women who filed the complaints against Arnold expressed frustrations over the potential of a politically motivated decision by the lone no vote on the commission, Lebanon attorney Elmer George who had just been appointed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo in January.
George had said he did not believe that the commission had the jurisdiction to hold the hearing on Arnold because Arnold resigned from the General Assembly in September. Arnold’s lawyer had made that case.
However, the commission took up that very question of jurisdiction late last year and the majority of the commission members decided that they did.
Anthony M. Wilhoit, the executive director of the legislative ethics commission, said Arnold’s lawyer made a motion to dismiss the hearing on the grounds that they did not have jurisdiction but the motion failed by a vote of four to one by the commission. Again, the commission needs five votes in order to proceed on a matter.
Representative Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, told Pure Politics in a phone interview Wednesday that the ethics commission’s decision Tuesday evoked emotional and political reactions.
And on a professional level, Adams said she was frustrated with the commission going forward with the hearing with the bare quorum of five members present because she said the commission frequently reschedules meetings and an issue of this magnitude should have been handled differently.
“This decision sends the message that if you are being discriminated against, you need to keep your mouth shut because we won’t do anything for you,” Adams said. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that this deals with how women are treated in the workplace and something needs to be done to make sure they are protected.”
The three members not present at the hearing — two appointees of the Speaker and one of then-Senate President David Williams — could not be reached by Pure Politics Wednesday as they were out of town.
Republicans aren’t the only ones expressing outrage about Tuesday’s hearing.
Representative Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, told Pure Politics Tuesday night that the decision made him wonder what Mr. George’s “marching orders were”.
“Did he in fact listen to, as the other four members did, to the testimony?” Owens asked. “It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t smell right, it doesn’t feel right.”
Owens isn’t the first to raise suspicions about a possible connection between George’s appointment by House Speaker Stumbo this year. George did not return calls from Pure Politics on Tuesday or Wednesday about the hearing and his vote. However, the speaker’s office told Pure Politics that Stumbo and George had no discussions about the case leading up to or after the appointment or before the vote on Tuesday.
In fact, Stumbo’s general counsel Pierce Whites said said they have done all they can do to make sure that the ethics commission is properly set up, including proposing the ninth seat—subject to joint appointment by House and Senate leaders—be filled by George C. Troutman when his term on the commission was up. Instead, after apparent disagreement, the speaker re-appointed Troutman to the commission as one of his own picks.
Troutman currently serves as the Chairman of the Commission, which Wilhoit says shows the weakened argument that the decision was political because Troutman is a Stumbo appointee. Troutman presided over the hearing and voted in favor of charging Arnold, Wilhoit added.
However, Troutman did go forward with the vote with only five members present.
Still, many are now turning their attention to the appointment process. Owens (in the interview above) said “something needs to change” in terms of how the process is handled.
That would require legislation. That process has been changed once before as previously, appointees were chosen by the House Speaker and Senate President but they chose from a list of three names given to them from other elected officials such as the attorney general.
Former Democratic State Auditor Crit Luallen told Pure Politics Tuesday that she believes the problem is not with the appointments to the ethics commission as the group is placed there and policed by a bipartisan group of leaders.
“I don’t think it is fair to make this a partisan issue,” Luallen said. “This issue is much bigger than partisan politics. We all have to come together ensure that women’s rights are protected.”
Adams, the Republican representative who also served on a panel that was investigating the harassment allegations, expressed a similar opinion. She said the system is not necessarily flawed but she believes that the way things were executed throughout this case raised questions of something else being at play.
Adams told Pure Politics that an even bigger concern is that since the allegations against Arnold became public in August, there has yet to be something done to understand the problem or course correct.
Adams said she believes that would require an evaluation and investigation by the House of the process of filing a complaint in order to get the facts and start making any real changes.
“I don’t think anyone can look at the women who work in Frankfort and say ‘we’ve done the right thing for you,’” Adams said.
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