FRANKFORT — Two female aides to House Democratic leaders have filed ethics complaints accusing state Rep. John A. Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis, of sexual harassment, according to state Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville.
Riner gave a forceful speech against sexual harassment on the House floor Wednesday, shortly after Louisville public radio station WFPL reported that veteran state employees Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner had filed complaints against Arnold on Friday with the Legislative Ethics Commission. The station said both women agreed to be identified.
The women alleged that Arnold inappropriately touched them and made lewd and vulgar comments in numerous incidents over several years, according to WFPL.
The report said the women brought their allegations to members of the Legislative Research Commission, high-ranking Democratic representatives and a member of the Kentucky State Police.
The women alleged that staffers with the LRC promised them Arnold's actions "would not be tolerated" and that Arnold was told to stay away from them, WFPL reported. Arnold ignored that directive, the women said.
The floor speech by Riner caught many House members by surprise. They listened attentively and several, particularly women lawmakers, gave him a standing ovation.
Arnold, who turns 69 Friday, listened to Riner's speech but left from a side door of the House chamber after the House adjourned and did not respond to questions. Arnold is a retired chiropractor and farmer and has been a member of the House since 1995.
Cooper is assigned as an aide to House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins. Costner is assigned as an adviser to House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson.
The two women declined to comment and referred questions to their Louisville attorney, Thomas Clay. Clay did not immediately respond to calls Wednesday.
Riner, a Baptist minister who has been in the House since 1982, never mentioned Arnold by name in his floor speech but said legislators have the right to know information that would help them address sexual harassment.
"Whether you hit someone — whether on the buttocks or wherever — it's still assault," he said.
Riner indicated that a third female employee of the Legislative Research Commission may soon be making similar complaints, but he did not elaborate.
If the Legislative Ethics Commission finds Arnold guilty, "the most decent thing for him to do is to resign from the legislature," Riner said in an interview after his speech.
Riner said he had first learned about the allegations against Arnold in the regular General Assembly session earlier this year, when he heard an Eastern Kentucky legislator, whom he did not identify, "giving Arnold a tongue-lashing about this."
"I contacted the women and encouraged them to make a complaint," Riner said. "It took weeks for them to do that."
In a telephone interview, LRC Executive Director Robert Sherman said he could not comment "on any personnel matters."
Sherman said the LRC has a written sexual harassment policy and investigates complaints when it receives them.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he does not "have any direct knowledge" of the sexual harassment complaints.
"But I have no tolerance," Stumbo said. "And I probably speak for every member of this chamber; we have no tolerance for harassment of any kind."
Stumbo said he was never advised directly about incidents involving Arnold, only saying that there were "rumors."
Adkins issued a statement Wednesday evening that said he met with Sherman when he was notified of the alleged harassment "to inform him of these allegations to ensure the protection of LRC employees."
John Schaaf, general counsel for the ethics commission, said he could neither confirm nor deny any complaint.
WFPL reported that Costner's complaint said the harassment started in March 2010, when Arnold allegedly grabbed Costner's underwear while they walked up the steps of the state Capitol Annex. The complaint said state Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, saw the incident and told Arnold not to touch Costner.
Meeks could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Another alleged encounter, the media report said, occurred earlier this year on Feb. 14. Cooper alleged that Arnold hit her on the buttocks when she bent over in an office to pick up a package of bottled water.
In her complaint, Cooper said Susan Klimchak, communications director for Adkins, told Arnold to leave Cooper alone. Klimchak declined to comment Wednesday.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the investigative process concerning the complaints "should take its due course" and that he has "much sympathy" for the women.
"If there is or has been any attempt to dissuade, harass or affect the investigation from going forward, then we want to know about it," Stivers said. "And if it is an LRC employee, it will be my position ... that that person should be fired immediately upon showing that they did something."
Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson issued a news release calling Arnold's alleged behavior "an embarrassment to our state" and questioning whether Democratic leaders had responded appropriately.
"This is definitely the type of scandal that could sink Democrat candidates across the state at all levels in 2014," Robertson said.
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com