The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission exonerated former Rep. John Arnold Tuesday after motions to find him guilty in three separate ethics complaints involving allegations of sexual harassment fell one vote short of passing.
Commissioners thrice voted 4-1 to find Arnold in violation of the legislative code of ethics, but each motion failed because the panel must have five affirmative votes to take action.
Arnold, a Sturgis Democrat, resigned his seat in September, less than a month after the sexual harassment complaints became public.
Five members of the nine-person board, which has one vacancy, heard testimony from complainants and witnesses Tuesday, meaning votes on each complaint had to be unanimous to punish Arnold.
Mike Malone, the commission’s enforcement counsel, had recommended public reprimands and fines up to $1,000 for each of the complaints against Arnold.
The result of the five-and-a-half hour hearing had two of the three women who accused Arnold of sexual harassment complaining of political gamesmanship by House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s recent appointee to the commission, a charge he vehemently denied.
Cassaundra Cooper, a staffer on House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins’ staff who took the stand and said Arnold slapped her on the buttocks Feb. 14, 2013, said she was “disappointed in the process.”
“I kind of think we knew there was going to be some maneuvering, and evidently that maneuvering took place,” Cooper said after the hearing. “… We think the speaker’s appointee was done for a reason, the timing of it, and it came into play today.”
Yolanda Costner, an advisor to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson who testified that Arnold grabbed the back of her pants and underwear while walking to the Capitol Annex in 2010, said Tuesday’s result was a win for “the good ol’ boy system.”
She noted personal concerns of Elmer George’s appointment by Stumbo in January given his political background.
George, the lone dissenter Tuesday, has donated $18,000 to various statewide and legislative Democratic candidates since 1999, according to election finance records, including $500 to Stumbo’s successful 2003 campaign for attorney general and $1,000 when he ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Bruce Lunsford.
Women who work at the Legislative Research Commission, Costner said, “aren’t protected at all” from sexual harassment.
“We sacrificed trying to make things better for our agency and for protection of women,” she said. “… Women that are being sexually harassed here in Frankfort, you can just forget it.
“You just have to take a spanking on the butt, you have to take having your underwear pulled, you have to take being verbally assaulted, and nobody’s going to care about it,” she continued. “Nobody’s going to do anything, so it’s best if you want to keep your job and your position, keep your mouth shut.”
George took offense to accusations that his vote was cast politically.
“I took an oath the day when I got sworn in to practice law, and I took an oath when I took this position, and I made my decision based on what I believe the law to be,” said George, a Lebanon attorney. “They’ll tell you that I’ve had questions from day one whether there was jurisdiction over a legislator who’s retired or quit for whatever reason.
“… I consider it an insult that someone would say I made a decision based solely on politics.”
In a statement, Stumbo did not address political concerns expressed by Cooper and Costner but reiterated that his office took appropriate action once the women came forward with complaints of harassment.
“The day we learned of the incident we acted to protect our employees and instructed the LRC director to investigate the allegations and follow our policy,” Stumbo said in the statement. “The testimony today confirms these facts.”
Steve Downey, Arnold’s Bowling Green attorney, said he spoke to Sandy Arnold, his client’s wife, about the commission’s decision and planned to speak to Arnold, who did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, personally later that day.
Much of Downey’s defense centered on health problems faced by the former state representative, notably a diagnosis of progressive dementia.
Malone, the ethics commission’s enforcement counsel, rejected claims that Arnold’s deteriorating health explained his behavior, saying medical records gave no indication Arnold had lost his ability to discern right from wrong.
“We’ve very happy justice was done here,” Downey told reporters.
Attorneys for the three women did not delve into Cooper’s and Costner’s political accusations, but they said they would have preferred to delay Tuesday’s hearing so other members of the commission could have considered their cases.
Frankfort attorney Brenda Allen — whose client, legislative secretary Gloria Morgan, said Arnold rubbed her back inappropriately and asked her if she would “come out to play” sometime around 2009 — said while she was disappointed in the result, she was glad all but one of those present wanted to punish Arnold.
“The majority of the members did believe Ms. Morgan and did believe that it was a violation, so I think she stands vindicated for what she’s done despite the fact there will be no sanction,” Allen told The State Journal.
But she added later: “I wish that the hearing was scheduled at such a time that more members could have participated in it.”
Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, who represents Costner and Cooper in the ethics matter and a pending lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court against LRC and Arnold, said he was troubled by George’s vote in light of the “uncontroverted” evidence presented Tuesday.
“It certainly seems problematic that one vote can thwart the whole procedure, and that’s what happened,” Clay told The State Journal.
The three who did not attend the hearing — Deborah Jo Durr of Richwood, a Stumbo appointee; Norma Scott of Madisonville, appointed by former Senate President David Williams; and Paul Gudgel of Lexington, appointed by Democratic Rep. Jody Richards during his time as speaker — had out-of-state scheduling conflicts, said Anthony Wilhoit, the ethics commission’s executive director.
“When I set the date for this, I didn’t know three members were going to be absent, OK, and there’s certain things we have to move on,” said George Troutman of Louisville, the commission chairman who joined Bob Fulkerson of Louisville, Pat Freibert of Lexington and Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs in voting to find Arnold guilty. “This case has been dragging for a long time, and it needs to be settled.”