More talk (behind closed doors), little action so far in House probe of former Rep. John Arnold

12/05/2013 09:50 AM

Lawmakers charged with investigating sexually harassment allegations against former Democratic Rep. John Arnold spent most of their first meeting since October behind closed doors to for what the panel’s chairman later called a “general conversation … about how we’re going to move forward.”

The panel’s chairman, Democratic Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville, said the four members of the committee who were present — Donohue, Democratic Rep. Rita Smart of Richmond and Republican Reps. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville and Robert Benvenuti of Lexington — have asked for a legal opinion before the next meeting on Dec. 12 about how it should gather information and take statements without interfering with civil suits involving Arnold and the legislature.

“We need to know how we proceed forward from a legal standpoint,” Donohue said. He said that will not include broadening the scope of the investigation to follow leads about other allegations of impropriety in the House beyond those dealing with Arnold.

The panel has yet to call a single witness since House Speaker Greg Stumbo created it on Aug. 29 to look into and potentially recommend censure or expulsion of Arnold, who resigned Sept. 13. Still, Donohue said the committee hopes to finish its information gathering by the beginning of the 2014 General Assembly.

“Our intent is to finish our task by Jan. 7, yes,” Donohue said. However, he said the committee hasn’t set a date for when it will present its recommendations to the full House, in which it could recommend censuring Arnold for his actions or potentially fining him even though he no longer is a member of the legislature.

Donohue, though, remained cryptic about the reason for the roughly 40-minute executive session on Thursday, describing it as a “frank discussion.”

“I want everyone to have the opportunity to speak,” he said adding that the members “cannot sit down and have a frank conversation” during an open meeting they way they could in executive session.

After the Courier-Journal’s Tom Loftus pointed out that “having a frank conversation” is not a legal reason to go into executive session, the committee’s attorney Patrick Hughes intervened to pull Donohue aside. Donohue cut off questions after that pointing to the state statute he originally cited that allows for executive session if a government body is discussing “discipline or dismissal of an individual employee (or) member.”

The fact that the committee’s entire charge is to weigh potential discipline against Arnold, a former member of the General Assembly, the committee could use that open meetings exemption often during its investigation.

In fact, attorney Thomas Clay, who is representing two of the legislative staffers who made the allegations against Arnold, said he expects that to happen. He said he hopes as much as possible is revealed publicly but acknowledged that he wants his clients, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, to offer at least a portion of their testimony before the committee behind closed doors.

Clay also said he wants internal investigations conducted by the Legislative Research Commission to become public. Clay’s clients have outlined in complaints and their lawsuit that Arnold inappropriately touched them and made inappropriate comments to them, including a situation in which Arnold grabbed Costner’s underwear in front of another legislator.

“It should be transparent, particularly involving the allegations and the number of complaints that were apparently made against Rep. Arnold,” Clay said.

He said he plans to file in Franklin Circuit Court “in the next couple days” the latest documents in the civil suit that argue that the Legislative Research Commission collected corroborating evidence about Arnold’s actions.

“The discovery responses we’re going to file in this litigation contain a lot of allegations which were apparently recognized and acknowledged as being true by Mr. Sherman and the LRC staff that was responsible for maintaining this work atmosphere here,” Clay said.


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