Sexual harassment concerns don't end with panel's vote

Some lawmakers still worried about Capitol culture

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

A House panel Thursday dropped its inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment by former Rep. John Arnold, but the committee’s two Republican members indicated they would still like to examine the chamber’s culture to help avoid similar situations in the future.

The panel said it lacks the authority to discipline a former member who’s already the subject of an ethics probe and a lawsuit filed by two legislative staffers.

The move came as a surprise to Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, and Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, who pressed the panel to continue its investigation. The committee ultimately voted 3-2 along party lines to end the matter after about half an hour behind closed doors.

“It’s been very frustrating and I do not want, for lack of a better term, to spin our wheels,” said Rep. Jeff Donohue, a Fairdale Democrat who chaired the committee. “… It’s not like this committee just by being formed hasn’t done something. It has brought light to what is going on down here or could possibly be going on down here.”

Donohue said he hoped to bring proposed changes to House rules and regulations during the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 7.

The panel has no power to discipline Arnold, D-Sturgis, since he resigned from the House about a week after the committee’s first meeting in early September, Donohue said. He cited a memo from Crestview Hills’ attorney Patrick Hughes that also recommended deferring to the Legislative Ethics Commission and the legal process. The committee hired Hughes at a rate of $125 per hour.

But those comments didn’t pacify Benvenuti and Adams, who took issue with Donohue reading from a prepared statement before entertaining a motion to close the investigation.

“The whole thing is, it’s so not transparent, and I don’t think that’s right,” Adams said. “… I for one want to express that I’m not going to take an easy way out because of one person’s legal opinion. I think that our job is bigger, and I think that it would’ve been very important for this committee to protect the institution, to make the institution stronger, to protect the women who work in this building.”

Benvenuti, who said he agreed with Hughes’ legal reasoning, said the committee should move forward with a complete investigation, call witnesses to testify and report its findings to the House.

“Different agencies and different entities have different objectives and different responsibilities,” he said. “I don’t care to defer our responsibilities as House members to the Legislative Ethics Commission, to a civil action or to anybody else.”

The scope of the investigation, in Benvenuti’s opinion, should include a look at the House’s culture to protect the lower chamber from future sexual harassment scandal. But Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said that goes beyond the panel’s responsibilities. Simpson called investigating a former member without authority to recommend disciplinary action “an exercise in futility” and compared it to holding a trial without a verdict.

“Relative to the culture and the acts or the inactions of others, I don’t know if that’s properly before us,” Simpson said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who filed the petition for possible censure against Arnold in August after three Legislative Research Commission staffers said Arnold sexually harassed them, said the committee would be expected to file a report to the House for possible action.

Donohue said he had not discussed the investigation’s potential conclusion with Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

LRC has been beleaguered since allegations against Arnold became public. The 16-member Legislative Research Commission, made up of top lawmakers, voted Wednesday to hire the National Conference of State Legislatures to recruit a new director and review the agency’s organizational structure. House Democratic leaders voted against the contract, instead favoring a proposal from Lexington-based Hanna Resource Group.

“The Senate is committed to solving the problems confronting the LRC and restoring trust in the General Assembly,” Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said in a statement. “The vote in yesterday’s LRC meeting to have the (NCSL) study the LRC’s organizational structure was a strong statement of the Senate’s desire to fix the problem. We hope the House is as committed as we are.”

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