Three legislative staffers file lawsuits related to sexual harassment scandal

jbrammer@herald-leader.comOctober 1, 2013 

FRANKFORT — An attorney representing three legislative staffers filed two lawsuits Tuesday alleging sexual harassment by lawmakers and unfair retaliation in a scandal that has rocked the Kentucky General Assembly.

In one lawsuit, two female legislative staffers — Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper — accused former state Rep. John Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis, of sexual harassment. In addition to Arnold, they named as defendants the state, House Speaker Greg Stumbo in his official capacity and the Legislative Research Commission.

Costner and Cooper allege that Arnold inappropriately touched them and made lewd and vulgar comments in numerous incidents over several years. They also contend that they were not properly paid for hours worked and overtime wages.

In another lawsuit, legislative staffer Nicole Cusic sued state Rep. Will Coursey, the LRC and former LRC executive director Robert Sherman, claiming she was retaliated against when she was moved to a different office after she complained to Coursey, D-Symsonia, about what she said was his inappropriate behavior with a legislative intern.

Arnold recently resigned from the legislature and denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, Steven Downey of Bowling Green, said he has not yet seen the lawsuit against Arnold and could not comment.

Coursey's attorney, Mark Edwards of Paducah, said Coursey denies the allegations in the lawsuit. Edwards noted that the lawsuit does not say whether Cusic ever complained to anyone about the job move.

Louisville attorney Thomas Clay is representing the three women in the lawsuits, which were filed in Franklin Circuit Court. He said both lawsuits seek a trial by jury and an unspecified amount of compensatory damages.

Clay did not rule out the possibility of more lawsuits, noting that he has received "a flood of calls from people who are current or former LRC employees. They have experienced concerns. They have named names and the conduct, frankly, is shocking."

Clay would not comment when asked if he has talked to anyone in any law enforcement agency about the complaints.

He said his clients have "been fortified" by colleagues and others who have said "it's about time somebody stood up and said something here because this situation needs to be addressed."

A fourth female legislative staff member, Gloria Morgan, has filed a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission against Arnold. Her attorney, Brenda Allen of Frankfort, has not said if Morgan will file a lawsuit.

Stumbo responded to the lawsuits in an email message: "It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation."

Defendants in the lawsuits have 20 days to file a response with the court after they have been served.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said his office is reviewing the lawsuits.

"We do not condone anything alleged to have happened in these lawsuits," he said. "We are committed to providing LRC staff with a safe working environment. We will wait for the civil process to take its course."

Sherman has denied any wrongdoing.

He resigned from his legislative position last month after he said his office had thoroughly investigated Costner's and Cooper's complaints and implemented protective measures for them.

Sherman is under investigation by Kentucky State Police for shredding documents in his Capitol office two days after resigning. He has said those documents had nothing to do with the sexual harassment claims.

Legislative leaders are to meet Wednesday to discuss a replacement for Sherman.

A special five-member panel of House members appointed by Stumbo is to meet next week to review the complaints against Arnold. Stumbo has not said if the panel also will consider Cusic's complaints.

Alleged retaliation

Cusic's lawsuit accuses Coursey of sexually harassing legislative employees and interns.

"Out of concern for Coursey, Nicole notified Coursey of his inappropriate conduct," the suit said.

After that, Cusic alleges, Coursey quit communicating with her and started complaining about her work.

Coursey then went to Stumbo's office, requesting that Cusic be transferred to another representative, according to the lawsuit.

Cusic was removed from Coursey's office and placed in a separate office with no work for a month, she alleged.

She later was transferred against her will from a secretarial position for the House to a secretarial position for the Senate, the lawsuit alleges.

Her lawsuit said Sherman and Coursey conspired and retaliated against Cusic for making a complaint against Coursey about his behavior.

As a result, Cusic said she suffered distress, embarrassment, humiliation, mental anguish, wage loss and medical expenses and should have been protected under the state's whistleblower statute.

Coursey's attorney said Coursey requested that Cusic be moved out of his office because "she was not a very good worker." He cited absenteeism and Cusic's failure to speedily issue responses to constituents.

Clay, Cusic's attorney, said he understands that Stumbo "was directly involved in the decision" to transfer Cusic.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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