Lawmakers approve $115,000 contract for lawyers in sexual harassment scandal

jbrammer@herald-leader.comNovember 12, 2013 

FRANKFORT — State lawmakers approved a $115,000 contract Tuesday with a Lexington law firm to represent the Legislative Research Commission in lawsuits stemming from a sexual harassment scandal.

The legislature's Government Contract Review Committee unanimously approved the contract for the law firm of Landrum and Shouse, but not before Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, questioned its size and why legislative attorneys were not used.

The contract, which runs from Oct. 9 to June 30, is for LRC representation in two lawsuits filed by three female legislative staffers.

One lawsuit, filed Oct. 1 by Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper, named as defendants former state Democratic Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis, the state, the LRC and House Speaker Greg Stumbo in his official capacity.

The two women allege that state officials failed to protect them after they complained in February that Arnold inappropriately touched them and made lewd and vulgar comments to them numerous times over several years.

Arnold has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the claims by the women are barred by the statute of limitations. His motion is to be heard Nov. 18.

Arnold has denied the harassment allegations and has resigned from the legislature.

Thomas Clay, an attorney for the women, has said there is no problem with the statute of limitations.

Another female legislative staffer, Nicole Cusic, sued state Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, the LRC and former LRC director Bobby Sherman on Oct. 1. She claimed that she was retaliated against when she was moved to a different office after she complained to Coursey about what she said was his inappropriate behavior with a legislative intern.

Coursey has denied the allegation. He has said Cusic's suit failed to describe an employment action that was adverse to her and was filed after the statute of limitations expired.

Laura Hendrix, general counsel for the LRC, said the contract's amount was difficult to estimate because it is uncertain how long representation will be needed for the two lawsuits.

She also said no in-house attorney was equipped to handle such litigation.

McDaniel also asked whether the LRC could recoup any of the money for the contract if the courts find that the LRC had done nothing wrong.

Hendrix said she didn't know the answer to that question.

Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, informed the committee that the contract came at the request of Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.

In other business, the contract review committee:

■ Approved four contracts for the office of the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange, which provides an online marketplace for health insurance companies under the new federal Affordable Care Act.

Three Republicans voted against two of the contracts, which involved federal money to provide enrollment, education and outreach services for the program. Those two contracts totaled $2.1 million.

■ Approved three contracts worth $10,000 each for the Executive Branch Ethics Commission to hire hearing officers for cases against three former employees in the administration of former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer.

John Steffen, executive director of the ethics commission, said Tuesday that investigations are pending against former agriculture employees William E. Mobley, Steven Mobley and Stephanie L. Sandmann.

The ethics panel usually hires hearing officers from the attorney general's office, but that office also investigated Farmer and his hiring practices while he was agriculture commissioner, Steffen said.

Farmer pleaded guilty in September to two counts of misappropriating government resources while overseeing the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He remains free pending a Jan. 14 sentencing.

Earlier this year, the ethics commission said three other ex-agriculture employees — Bruce Harper, George "Doug" Begley and Chris Parsons — agreed to pay $16,000 in fines to settle ethics charges.

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

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