Herald-Leader Editorial

Independent look needed at sexual harassment claims

August 27, 2013 

Kentucky House leaders have expressed appropriate outrage about sexual harassment complaints by three female House aides against a Western Kentucky lawmaker.

But any serious investigation should be conducted by someone independent of the legislature, perhaps by the attorney general's office.

And the focus should go beyond how the Legislative Research Commission handled these and other complaints to include how House leadership handled them, as well.

The women said they complained over several years to House leaders who did little to stop the behavior.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, however, said Monday that he had authorized mediation over the matter in recent months.

It seems obvious from at least one of the complaints — which also alleges affairs between two lawmakers and LRC staffers — that this could become part of a broader legal case arguing that an unprofessional work atmosphere in the Capitol has allowed sexual harassment to thrive.

Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, who served in the House, described that environment as a "sad culture of good-ol'-boyism" in comments on Cn2 Politics.

"At the core we are not just talking about these individuals," Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, said. "We are talking about a culture that may or may not exist here at the Capitol that allows that kind of activity to continue unabated."

This issue surfaced last week when WFPL radio reported that longtime employees Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner had filed complaints with the Legislative Ethics Commission about inappropriate touching and lewd comments by Rep. John A. Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis.

A third LRC staffer, Gloria Morgan, followed with a separate complaint against the lawmaker.

Arnold, 69, a retired chiro practor and farmer, has not responded to the complaints.

Thomas Clay, attorney for Cooper and Costner, has promised more harassment complaints. "This is just the outer skin of the onion," he said.

Stumbo has called for more sexual harassment training for lawmakers and has strongly criticized the LRC for its handling of the complaints.

But the reality is that the LRC has no power over lawmakers, while House leadership can, among other things, take away staff and committee assignments. The ethics commission could recommend a lawmaker be censured or expelled from the legislature.

Yet the staffers allege that House leaders took no firm stand to stop the offensive behavior. One lawmaker allegedly responded by calling Arnold "harmless."

That gives little confidence that lawmakers — with their reputations at stake — will do a thorough assessment of the work environment and offer the strongest remedies to avoid such problems in the future.

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