For the women who raised allegations of sexual harassment against former Rep. John Arnold dating back to 2009, the decision Wednesday by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission to punish him for his actions validated their resolve to file complaints.
The commission took a rare step in reprimanding and fining Arnold $3,000 for ethics violations stemming from the complaints by three legislative staffers.
“Our prayers have been answered,” said Yolanda Costner, an adviser to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, who told the ethics commission Arnold grabbed her underwear while she ascended the Capitol Annex steps in 2010.
“… We’re not alleging that these things happened to us. They actually happened to us, and we wanted the state to acknowledge that John Arnold assaulted us, and it has hurt us and humiliated us.”
Arnold’s attorney, Steve Downey of Bowling Green, said he plans to appeal the decision to Franklin Circuit Court, questioning the panel’s ability to punish his client after it took no punitive action following a similar hearing last month.
At its April meeting, motions to find Arnold in violation failed on procedural grounds 4-1 — actions by the commission need five affirmative votes — but commissioners voted 5-1 Wednesday to punish the former Democratic lawmaker from Sturgis. Elmer George, a Lebanon attorney, dissented in all votes.
The three women again took the witness stand Wednesday to recount their experiences with the former lawmaker, who resigned in September after House Speaker Greg Stumbo empanelled a commission of state representatives to investigate the accusations. That panel ultimately disbanded, with a majority of members citing a lack of jurisdiction to punish a former colleague.
Cassaundra Cooper, an aide to House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, again told the panel of an incident from February 2013 in which Arnold smacked her buttocks while she bent over to grab a package of bottled water from her office.
She and Costner raised additional concerns about inappropriate conduct they witnessed or heard about during this year’s legislative session. Wednesday’s result may spur other women at the Legislative Research Commission to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, she said, but they remain concerned that speaking out will draw retaliation.
“I don’t know that they’ll ever get past that fear so they will come out and speak publicly, but I think the decision today gives a lot of hope to the employees here at LRC,” Cooper said.
Gloria Morgan, a legislative secretary who said Arnold rubbed her back one evening in 2009 and asked whether she would “come out and play tonight,” left the Capitol Annex without speaking to reporters. The State Journal attempted to reach her through her former attorney, Brenda Allen of Frankfort.
Downey, who pinned Arnold’s behavior on degenerative dementia and declining health overall, said he intends to appeal the decision. He had not spoken to his client before addressing reporters, but said the panel had “acted legally” during an April hearing that ended with a failure to pass motions finding Arnold guilty of ethical misconduct.
“The decision that they made to retry Mr. Arnold after having completed their trial before is in error,” Downey said. “It’s not authorized by statute, will be the subject of an appeal to the Franklin Circuit Court, and the hearing conducted today within one hour after the decision to retry is basically a nullity because this matter was already tried on April 8.
“And that was the end of this matter, and someone else is going to have to make that statement other than the commission.”
The ethics commission’s indecision last month drew numerous calls to reopen the hearing, a point Downey made in his arguments against the retrial.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, was among those who said the panel should reconsider the cases against Arnold, but his spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, declined to comment on Wednesday’s decision since it will be appealed in court.
Anthony Wilhoit, the ethics commission’s executive director, defended the panel’s decisions to rehear the complaints against Arnold and punish the former lawmaker.
“As far as I can foresee, everything was done legally,” Wilhoit said.
Attorney Thomas Clay of Louisville, who represents Costner and Cooper in their complaints against Arnold and a corresponding lawsuit, hailed Wednesday’s ruling in an interview with The State Journal.
“Finally we got the outcome that we should’ve gotten a while ago, but better late than never,” Clay said.
Downey has a right to appeal the panel’s decision, Clay added, but “he’s got a pretty tall mountain to climb to get this overturned, I think.”
Clay said Wednesday’s outcome should give “everybody in that legislature a wakeup call,” but he’s unsure whether more women at LRC will bring similar allegations to light now that the ethics panel has meted out punishment.
“I’ve gotten a lot calls from folks who have had questions about whether they had a claim or not, and I guess at this point now that the commission has done what it’s done, we’ll have to sit back and wait and see if anybody else is going to come forward,” he said.
Clay’s clients said they don’t expect much to change in their work environment with the commission’s ruling. The sexual harassment scandal has left their relationships with the House Democratic caucus, other lawmakers and LRC co-workers “strained,” they said.
“It’s not going to repair what we lost,” Costner said.