LRC leaders balk at talking publicly about harassment details because of lawsuit fears

09/04/2013 09:20 AM

As legislative leaders pressed for answers about the handling of sexual harassment complaints against Democratic Rep. John Arnold, the director of the Legislative Research Commission balked at talking about the details of the case publicly.

“I have heard the possibility of litigation discussed, and I do think that is a real possibility,” LRC Director Bobby Sherman told leaders of both parties from both chambers during Wednesday’s Legislative Research Commission meeting.

Sherman, the LRC attorney Laura Hendrix and Cheryl U. Lewis —an employment lawyer from Hyden hired by the LRC — all urged caution about disclosing details of the complaints in an open meeting that could legally expose the legislative branch. Those complaints against Arnold became public last month during the legislative special session.

Wednesday’s meeting was punctuated by a brief debate between Republican Senate President Robert Stivers, Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo and House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover about how much should be discussed in a public meeting.

Hoover urged the commission to take the attorneys’ advice and go into executive session, while Stumbo — a former attorney general — said he wanted to remain in an open meeting because the matter wasn’t dealing with any hiring, firing or discipline of personnel and no lawsuit has been explicitly threatened.

Just before noon — after nearly two hours of discussion — the legislative leaders voted 10-5 to go into executive session with all five Democratic House leaders voting against going behind closed doors. Rep. Sannie Overly, the Democratic caucus chairman from Paris, said without a specific threat of litigation, there wasn’t the need to go into executive session. Stivers, though, said the executive session would be recorded and be held until released by court order or by direction of the LRC.

Stumbo said he wouldn’t participate in the closed portion “because I believe it will be illegal.”

Sherman went on in the open portion of the meeting to say his staff has “nearly completed” two investigations brought by two LRC staff members against Arnold. In the complaints, the female staff members, they outlined incidents in which Arnold inappropriately grabbed or made inappropriate comments to them. A third staff member later issued a complaint.

Thomas Clay, the attorney for two of the staff members, said during a recess in the LRC meeting that he and the staff members — who were attending the meeting — wanted as much as possible to be aired publicly and had expressed that to Stivers.

Ultimately, Sherman outlined the timeline of how he and legislative staff handled the complaints from the staff members who work in the House Democratic leadership office. Sherman said he received the complaints on Feb. 19, during the legislative session.

  • Feb. 20 -27: LRC investigators interviewed the staff who made the complaints, witnesses and Arnold
  • Feb. 28: Arrived at findings, which the LRC shared with the staff members who brought the complaint. (Sherman did not disclose on Wednesday what those findings were but acknowledged under questioning from Hoover that he didn’t share those findings with the House Democratic leaders).
  • March 1 – Aug. 27: The LRC engaged in “periodic monitoring of the situation,” although Sherman didn’t elaborate on what that entailed.
  • June 11: LRC hired Lewis, the employment lawyer to review the LRC’s handling of the investigation and provide “another set of eyes,” as Sherman said.

Responding to questions to Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown, Sherman said he didn’t consult with anyone when hiring Lewis. Sherman said Lewis is essentially a part-time employee and not on a contract.

“I came to the decision that it would be good to have this kind of help,” Sherman said in defense of his hiring of Lewis.

Thayer and Stivers, at various points, put Sherman on the hot seat about whether Sherman talked to a member of House leadership about hiring Lewis as well as how much Sherman knew about potential lawsuits being brought by the staff members against the legislative branch.

Hoover then asked Sherman why he waited “four months to hire outside counsel.”

Sherman again deflected, saying he felt “hamstrung” about what he could say.

“If it looks like our goal here is trying to make ourselves look good when it’s a serious matter and everyone takes it as such, I want to avoid that,” Sherman told the panel of legislative leaders.

After nearly two hours of the meeting, which began at 10 a.m., Senate Republican Whip Brandon Smith, proposed spending “hours” to get more of lawmakers’ questions answered even if it meant going behind closed doors in executive session.

“We’ve got all these questions with want answered … I think that does a diservce to these women … I think the people in my district deserve to know what’s going on down here,” said Smith, of Hazard. “I’m not an attorney. And right now I’m really proud of myself for that.”


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