By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
The attorney for two women suing former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, the legislature and Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo says it’s unclear for whom the women actually work.
One of the women, Yolanda Costner, also claims that after she filed suit she was passed over for a promotion which went instead to a Democratic campaign activist who worked on Arnold’s most recent re-election campaign in 2012.
Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper claim Arnold sexually harassed them, making lewd comments and touching them inappropriately. They are suing Arnold, the state, the Legislative Research Commission, which operates the legislature and supervises its staff, and former LRC Director Bobby Sherman.
They were in court Monday with their attorney Tom Clay to answer a motion by Stumbo asking to be dismissed from the suit. His attorney, Anna Whites, said it’s clear the LRC and not Stumbo employs the women and he and the state should be dropped from the suit.
Clay responded that it’s anything but clear for whom the women work. Both are “partisan” LRC employees who work directly for House Leadership and the LRC handbook addresses only “non-partisan” staff which work for the LRC Director and legislature at large.
The sexual harassment allegations first came to light during an August special session of the General Assembly when they and others filed complaints against Arnold with the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission. Arnold resigned from the legislature but denies the allegations.
Among their complaints, the two women also allege they routinely worked overtime for which they were never paid. That’s why the question of their employer is important. Employees of the LRC are exempt from provisions of overtime laws but Clay contends his clients worked for Stumbo and the House leadership and are due payment for the overtime.
Another of their attorneys, David Ward, told Judge Thomas Wingate Monday that, “It is unknown who is actually the plaintiffs’ employer.”
Whites argued Costner and Cooper are LRC employees and so did Leslie P. Vose, the LRC’s attorney. Additionally, Whites said, “the law unequivocally says the LRC is the employer.”
But Clay quoted Sherman who told Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, during a Sept. 9 meeting of the party leaders on the LRC that he didn’t hire the partisan staff, or set their salaries or hire or fire them. (Sherman later retired following an internal LRC investigation which found no wrongdoing by the LRC in the way it handled the women’s complaints.)
Vose told Wingate the women’s employment is similar to staff at a large legal firm: some staff are assigned to work for specific members of the firm but they are nonetheless employees of the firm and not the specific attorneys whom they serve.
The arguments illustrate the confusion which has arisen in the wake of the women’s allegations. The LRC — technically the party leaders of the House and Senate — employs a director and about 400 people to support the General Assembly.
Those employees are not protected under the state’s civil service law and are salaried and considered exempt from wage and hour laws, according to Whites and the LRC manual. Most employees are considered “non-partisan,” working with members of both parties and taking no partisan positions on legislation.
But a minority — including Costner and Cooper — are employed by House and Senate leaders who determine their salaries and their work assignments.
Wingate said he would rule on the motions within two weeks.
Following the court hearing, Costner said she had hoped to be named chief of staff for House Whip Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, but instead Liles Taylor, who currently works in the Transportation Cabinet, was hired.
She said she was hurt by being passed over because she was qualified for the position and now is uncomfortable reporting to someone who helped re-elect the man she alleges sexually harassed her.
Whites said Taylor did not work specifically for Arnold’s campaign but rather worked for the Kentucky Democratic Party on “a number of races in western Kentucky.”
CNHI was unable to reach Thompson for comment.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at ww.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.