Damage control may not suffice after slow response to harassment complaints

Herald-leader columnistSeptember 8, 2013 

FRANKFORT — So many choices, but let's put empty-headed remarks about empty dresses and Richie Farmer's plea deal on hold for a moment and start with the sexual harassment allegations that have General Assembly leaders and top Legislative Research Commission staffers in a tizzy.

Someone blew it. It's that simple. I have no clue who the someone was, and may never know for sure unless what was said behind closed doors Wednesday in the Capitol Annex becomes a public record. But someone blew it.

Two House Democratic leadership staffers filed complaints with the LRC Feb. 19 alleging sexual harassment by Democratic Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis dating back to at least 2010. They and a third woman who has accused Arnold of sexual harassment also filed complaints with the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Since Louisville radio station WFPL broke the news about the ethics complaints during the recent redistricting special session, damage control seems to have become priority one for legislative leaders, particularly House Democratic leaders, and for LRC executives.

But no amount of damage control can obscure one simple truth: More than six months out, the initial complaints should not remain unresolved.

Both sides deserve answers in a shorter time frame. Yet the complaints remained unresolved when House and Senate leaders got together Wednesday.

A quicker resolution of those initial complaints might have defused the news of the ethics complaints when it broke. A quicker resolution might have kept House Speaker Greg Stumbo from looking like he was backing and filling when he belatedly filed a "Petition of Censure or Expulsion" against Arnold and appointed a committee to investigate the matter.

A quicker resolution might have kept legislative leaders from spending six hours (four of them in a closed session House Democratic leaders refused to attend) Wednesday discussing the handling of the complaints with LRC staffers.

And a quicker resolution might have kept Thomas Clay, the Louisville attorney representing Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, from referring to the closed session as "smoke and mirrors" and generally blasting the LRC for its lack of response.

Talking to members of the media outside the meeting, Clay sounded like a lawyer who planned on frying bigger fish than just Arnold. "It's been going on for years," he said. "It goes back to Kent Downey," a former House Democratic aide involved in a legislative sex scandal in the 1990s.

Yep. Someone blew it. And crawly creatures are out of the can.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes couldn't have scripted a better way to bring the campaign spotlight back to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's less than stellar record on women's issues than to have National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring refer to her as "an empty dress."

Sexist? Yes. Chauvinistic? Yes. Dumb? Beyond description.

Speaking of descriptions, the best one I've heard of the activity that ultimately led to Richie Farmer agreeing to a plea deal with federal and state prosecutors and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission was something to the effect that, as state agricultural commissioner, the former University of Kentucky basketball acted like he was still on scholarship.

Problem is, in my advanced years, I can't remember the name of the witty person who told me this. However, I will gladly give full credit if said person jogs my memory.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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