Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

September 13, 2013

Sturgis lawmaker resigns amid accusations

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, who has been accused of sexual harassment by three employees of the legislature, has resigned from the General Assembly.

Gov. Steve Beshear confirmed Friday afternoon he’d received Arnold’s resignation.

“I have received Rep. John Arnold’s resignation, and I respect his decision to step aside so that our legislators can focus instead on the business of the state,” Beshear said in a statement. “I will begin reviewing the options for calling a special election to make sure the people of the 7th District will be represented in the 2014 session of the General Assembly.”

Three female employees of the legislature have filed sexual harassment complaints against Arnold with the Legislative Ethics Commission.  Two, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, who work for Democratic House leadership, allege that Arnold made lewd and vulgar comments and touched them inappropriately.

The news was first published by WFPL, Louisville Public Radio, during a special session of the General Assembly during the week of Aug. 19-23. Subsequently, a third legislative employee, Gloria Morgan, filed a separate allegation against Arnold with the ethics commission.

The ethics commission will neither confirm nor deny ongoing investigations.

CNHI News spoke briefly by phone with Arnold on Friday but he referred questions to his attorney, Steve Downey, of Bowling Green. Downey was out of the office and did not immediately respond to a message left by CNHI News.

Thomas Clay, the attorney representing Cooper and Costner, said that Arnold’s resignation may avoid having to appear before the ethics commission but it won’t necessarily prevent litigation against Arnold.

“I think Rep. Arnold has taken this step to avoid having to go through a hearing before the ethics commission,” Clay said. “But I’m not sure it will resolve all his issues. He could still face liability issues for what could be construed as retaliation on his part.”

Clay also said the resignation itself doesn’t mean the Legislative Research Commission, the governing arm of the General Assembly made up of 16 legislative leaders and which employs around 350 legislative staff, won’t still face litigation.

“Thus far the LRC has not come out with any investigation results or corrective action,” Clay said. “They’ve been totally unresponsive to the allegations.”

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, appointed a five-member select House Committee to investigate the charges against Arnold and to recommend to the full House whether to censure or expel Arnold when it meets in January.

That committee, made up of Democrats Rita Smart, Arnold Simpson, and Jeff Donahue and Republicans Julie Raque Adams and Richard Benvenutti, is scheduled to meet on Sept. 17.

The select committee is still scheduled to meet next week, Stumbo said Friday.

“The resignation of Rep. John Arnold does not change the fact that the House has appointed a special committee of investigation, and the only thing that will change is that the members will not have to make a recommendation of potential disciplinary action,” Stumbo said in a statement.  “We look forward to that committee beginning its work and providing feedback to the House.”

The 16-member group of lawmakers which comprises the LRC met last week to hear a report from LRC Director Bobby Sherman on the progress of the investigation but took no formal action.

Much of that meeting took place behind closed doors, but Sherman revealed during the open portion of the meeting the timeline of the various complaints and steps he took to investigate and resolve the complaints.

Sherman said he received two complaints on Feb. 19, 2013 and immediately informed Arnold, meeting with the Union County lawmaker the next day and with “relative witnesses.” A week later, his staff interviewed the Cooper and Costner. He said the women and Arnold were informed the following day, on Feb. 28, of the investigation’s findings.

Clay has said his clients have still not been informed of any findings or action taken.

In June, Sherman hired Cheryl Lewis, an experienced employment law attorney, to assist in the investigation. Also in June, Sherman said, a third complaint, presumably by Morgan, was filed and his office began an investigation.

Sherman said he did not discuss the investigation with House leaders other than to inform Stumbo’s staff that the investigation was underway.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.