A Western Kentucky lawmaker threw a woman’s underwear on a crowded table this summer at a legislative conference, an action that resurfaced Monday after he blocked consideration of a resolution to honor three Legislative Research Commission staffers who filed sexual harassment complaints against a former representative, according to an attorney for two of the women.
Thomas Clay, a Louisville lawyer who represents Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner in still unresolved ethics complaints and a lawsuit against former Democratic Rep. John Arnold, said Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, tossed a pair of panties on a table where Cooper and Costner sat at July’s Southern Legislative Conference in Mobile, Ala.
Gooch did not deny the incident in a report by Kentucky Public Radio, saying an inebriated woman he did not know slipped “a personal item” in his pocket. He told KPR everyone at the table laughed.
“I was kind of taken back by it, and I actually told some other people there ... ‘You’re not going to believe what happened,’” Gooch said in the KPR report. “And, you know, I may have showed them that personal item, but it was more or less, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’”
Gooch spoke out against a resolution by Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, honoring the women for filing ethics complaints against Arnold, questioning whether the General Assembly should weigh in on the subject of a lawsuit against the LRC. The resolution passed later in the day.
Clay said Gooch’s outspokenness against the resolution led his clients to publicize the incident.
“They (Cooper and Costner) didn’t believe it was anything that was worthy of a complaint, but given Mr. Gooch’s actions today on this resolution, I guess it became more relevant, the fact that he engaged in that kind of conduct,” Clay said.
The House Monday also approved an overhaul to the Legislative Ethics Commission in response to the panel’s procedural rejection of complaints filed against Arnold by Cooper, an aide to House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins; Costner, an adviser for House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson; and legislative secretary Gloria Morgan. The three women have asked the panel to reconsider their cases.
The commission’s 4-1 decision last week — which needed five votes to pass — not to punish Arnold refocused the General Assembly’s attention on the sordid accusations against the former representative from Sturgis.
The House’s amended version of Senate Bill 234, which strengthens protections for victims of sexual offenses, would clarify that sexual harassment by a lawmaker is covered under the ethics code, as are former lawmakers. It would also alter membership of the Legislative Ethics Commission to require at least two women and one minority on the panel and mandate attendance of at least half of the commission’s meetings.
The debate led a number of Democrat and Republican lawmakers to either praise the women who brought complaints of sexual harassment to light, chastise the ethics panel’s inaction or both.
“The moral courage of those three women stand as a testament to truth,” said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville. “They stand as a testament to what all women need to do when they are sexually harassed.”
Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, testified at last week’s ethics commission hearing, telling the panel that he witnessed Arnold grab the back of Costner’s pants and underwear while walking up the Capitol Annex steps. He said the commission’s decision left him “deeply hurt but not really surprised.”
“I stand today to add my voice to the ongoing process of polishing that beacon in order to brighten that light on the hill,” Meeks said. “… If we don’t pass this amendment this day, we don’t address this problem as a body this day, we will have missed an opportunity to prove our rejection of any act that devalues the humanity of another.”
The original version of this article in the April 15 edition should have said Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., D-Providence, represents a Western Kentucky district. His district includes Webster and McLean counties and a portion of Daviess and Hopkins counties. The corrected version is posted here.