Top lawmakers — sans House Democratic leaders — spent more than four hours behind closed doors Wednesday discussing sexual harassment complaints filed by partisan Legislative Research Commission staffers against Democratic Rep. John Arnold.
The lengthy private meeting of the 16-member LRC, made up of Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, followed a basic timeline of events presented by LRC Director Robert Sherman, who said he felt “hamstrung” in open session and often stopped short of offering specific details of the agency’s investigation of those complaints.
The threat of legal action by Yolanda Costner, an adviser to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, and Cassaundra Cooper, an aide to House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, stifled much discussion during the open portion of the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours.
Cheryl Lewis, a Hyden employment attorney hired part-time by LRC to investigate its handling of the sexual harassment complaints, said she has discussed a possible settlement in regard to the complaints. She cautioned against disclosing much during an open meeting.
“It is my position as a consultant for LRC … that there is significant liability, not only for yourself, but for the individuals talking as well as the complainants sitting here today and the accused,” Lewis said, alluding to Costner and Cooper, who sat in the second row of the Capitol Annex meeting room with their attorney, Thomas Clay of Louisville.
After pressing Sherman and LRC leaders for answers regarding the investigation and similar claims dating back to 2009, lawmakers voted 10-5 to enter closed session, with all members of House Democratic leadership voting to keep the meeting open.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, questioned the legality of the executive session because lawmakers would not be discussing specific litigation and personnel matters.
“It is an ongoing investigation, as I understand it,” Stumbo said, explaining his “no” vote on entering closed session. “As I understand it, there are no demands to be made for settlement that we would consider … and therefore I do not believe that it meets the standard required for a closed session.”
He and other House Democratic leaders did not attend the four-hour, closed-door meeting, which was recorded on audio.
During the open portion of the meeting, Sherman gave a general timeline of events after the sexual harassment complaints were filed Feb. 19. Costner and Cooper were interviewed Feb. 20, Arnold was questioned Feb. 27, and findings were shared with Arnold and the complainants, Sherman said, though he did not mention anyone by name. The agency monitored the situation before hiring Lewis to review LRC’s response to the complaints June 11.
Final action was taken Aug. 27, but the matter remains unresolved because not everyone has been notified of the investigation’s outcome, Sherman said.
Clay, speaking to reporters before lawmakers entered executive session, said his clients have not been notified of the LRC’s investigative findings.
He told The State Journal later that the women were told via email that Arnold, 69, of Sturgis, was required to call ahead before coming to Frankfort and refrain from interacting with them, but no other corrective action has been communicated to them.
Clay, flanked by Costner and Cooper at the Capitol Annex, said the sexual harassment investigation “has been bungled from the start.
“I think they’ve (LRC and legislators) been inattentive to the concerns that have been raised not only by these ladies, but by other employees of LRC,” he said.
He said his clients are still contemplating legal action in the matter.
“The fact that the LRC director does not want to be forthcoming about the questions that were posed to him by the legislators” raises the likelihood that lawsuits will be filed, Clay said.
He declined to say whether other female LRC staffers have approached him with similar sexual harassment complaints, nor did he identify an attorney who had contacted him on Arnold’s behalf. He alluded to other lawmakers who have engaged in similar conduct, though he declined to name them.
If he files lawsuits in the matter, Clay said he would seek a recording of Wednesday’s closed session.
Few details emerged from the closed session. Senate President Robert Stivers declined to discuss specifics after the meeting adjourned.
“We’ve had a very long executive session,” he said. “We’ve had information delivered to us and beyond that it would be inappropriate to comment as to anything else.”
Stivers, R-Manchester, could not provide a timeline or the next step in the process.