FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission was one vote shy Tuesday of finding a former state lawmaker guilty of three ethics charges in a case brought by three female legislative staffers who said he had inappropriately touched them.
The commission needed five votes to punish Democrat John Arnold of Sturgis for allegedly abusing his position as a public official, but its vote was 4-1. Commissioner Elmer George of Lebanon voted no, saying he did not think the commission had the authority to punish a former member of the General Assembly.
The commission has nine members. One position to be appointed by legislative leaders has been vacant for two years, and three members — Paul D. Gudgel of Lexington, Norma Scott of Madisonville and Deborah Jo Durr of Northern Kentucky — were out of state Tuesday, said Tony Wilhoit, the commission's executive director.
The outcome of the commission's four-hour hearing angered the staffers, who described in detail the alleged harassment by Arnold.
Arnold, 69, has denied any wrongdoing. He resigned from the legislature last September.
Two of the women, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, said the commission's decision smacked of politics and that they did not know five commission votes were needed to find Arnold guilty of ethics violations.
"We didn't get justice today," Cooper said.
Costner noted that George, who is active in state politics, had been appointed to the commission in January by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
George said he was insulted that anyone would accuse him of playing politics with his vote. He said the legislature should make clear whether a former lawmaker can be brought up on charges with the ethics commission.
Cooper and Costner have filed a lawsuit against Arnold in Franklin Circuit Court. The other woman, Gloria Morgan, left the ethics hearing before the final action was taken.
Commission chairman George Troutman of Louisville said the hearing date was set weeks ago and he had no idea that three members would be absent.
Costner said the ethics hearing should have been delayed until all its members could be present.
Commissioners voting to find Arnold guilty were Troutman, Pat Freibert of Lexington, Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs and Bob Fulkerson of Louisville.
Costner also said she was concerned that all commission members at the hearing were white and the three women are black.
"No one understands the trouble that African American women have gone through," she said. "We still can't be respected."
She said the commission's action "showed that women here still can't be protected."
"You have to take the spanking on the butt. You have to take your underwear being pulled. You have to take being verbally assaulted," Costner said. "No one is going to care about it. If you want to keep your job and position, keep your mouth shut."
During the hearing, Costner, who works in the House Democratic whip's office, testified that Arnold pulled at her panties when she was walking to the Capitol Annex in March 2010.
Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, testified in a taped interview that he saw Arnold harass Costner and told him to never do it again.
She said she told several people about Arnold's unsolicited advances, including her boss, Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, and later Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Henderson, and Roy Collins, a human resources official with the Legislative Research Commission. However, she said Arnold's inappropriate behavior continued.
Cooper, who works for House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Flatwoods, said Arnold slapped her on her buttocks on Feb. 14, 2013, when she was bending over to put bottled water in a refrigerator in a legislative office.
She said she thought, "Oh, my God, what just happened." She added that she also reported Arnold's actions to LRC officials, but they did not stop.
Collins testified that LRC officials had no authority under state law to discipline Arnold.
Morgan, a legislative secretary, said Arnold in 2009 approached her in the hallway at the annex, rubbed his hand up and down her back and asked if she "were going to come out and play tonight."
Morgan, who was crying, told the commission she was afraid of Arnold and told him she had too much work to do.
Also entered as evidence in the hearing were depositions from Garland Certain, a Morganfield bank president who is a friend of Arnold, and Dr. Vinod Soni, Arnold's personal physician in Sturgis.
The commission's enforcement counsel, Mike Malone, had asked the commission to find Arnold guilty, publicly reprimand him and fine him up to $1,000 on each of the three ethics charges against him.
But Arnold's attorney, Steven Downey of Bowling Green, said the commission lacked authority to hold the hearing. He also said Arnold was suffering from progressive dementia.
"Justice was done," Downey said following the commission's vote.
In a statement issued late in the day, Stumbo said the testimony at Tuesday's hearing backed up his contention that House leaders acted appropriately in the case.
"We stand by our original and consistent response; the day we learned of the incident we acted to protect our employees and instructed the LRC director to investigate the allegations and follow our policy," Stumbo said. "The testimony today confirms these facts."
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com