A House committee will navigate uncharted waters when it opens an investigation into former Rep. John Arnold, who resigned Friday amid allegations of sexual harassment by three Legislative Research Commission staffers.
The five-person panel — comprised of Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, Rita Smart, D-Richmond, Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville, Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, and Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington — met for the first time Tuesday, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo spoke to the unique nature of probing the actions of a former lawmaker.
“There’s not a lot of precedent going forward,” said Stumbo, who filed a petition for censure or expulsion against Arnold Aug. 29.
Though the Sturgis Democrat, first elected in 1995, no longer serves in the House, Stumbo said the investigative committee could move forward with its inquiry and recommend punishments, since Arnold’s alleged sexual harassment took place while he was a member of the General Assembly.
Three legislative staffers — Yolanda Costner, an adviser to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson; Cassaundra Cooper, an aide to House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins; and Gloria Morgan, a legislative secretary — have accused Arnold of inappropriately touching them and making lewd comments toward them dating back to 2008.
Arnold has declined public comment on the matter, but he said in his resignation letter he is innocent of the allegations, which have left him “destroyed politically.”
The ousted lawmaker, and other witnesses, could be subpoenaed to testify by the committee.
“It depends on what the committee decides to do,” Donohue, who was elected chairman by a 3-2 vote along party lines, said after the meeting, when asked whether Arnold would be summoned before the committee.
Arnold’s resignation only takes the most severe punishment — expulsion from the House — off the table for the committee’s consideration, Stumbo said during Tuesday’s meeting, adding he hopes people “understand that we’re not going to turn our heads and look the other way.”
“I don’t condone this type of behavior, and I know none of you do, and I’m not saying it’s true,” Stumbo said. “But if it’s true … none of us would want that to happen.”
The committee set a second meeting for 1 p.m. Oct. 9, during which lawmakers will consider potential legal counsel in the matter. The panel is set to present its recommendations to the House during the opening days of the 2014 legislative session.
While the meeting centered on housekeeping issues, questions did arise about an investigation ongoing at the same time as probes by LRC and the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Simpson, an attorney, asked whether the committee should wait for the other investigations to conclude before launching its own inquiry.
“Would it not be prudent, since our charge is to act prior to January, to delay action for a while to see if we can ascertain and benefit from the fruits of these other investigations?” he asked.
Benvenuti, a former inspector general, said agency investigations commonly overlap, but he hoped a final report would not be issued until all inquiries are complete. The scope of the inquiry into Arnold’s alleged misdeeds could expand as witnesses provide testimony, he said.
Others on the panel agreed to proceed with an investigation.
“I believe that we have a real public trust issue, and I believe that a report to recommend appropriateness of House members, how they conduct themselves and how we live up to the public trust is an important piece to the puzzle that we’re all fitting together here,” Adams said.