Herald-Leader Editorial

No justice in how ethics case handled; panel ignores staff on harassment findings

April 10, 2014 

John Arnold was charged with sexual harrassment by legislative staffers.

DARRIN PHEGLEY — Associated Press/The Gleaner file photo

Yolanda Costner summed it up very well:

"Women who are being sexually harassed here in Frankfort, you can just forget it."

She should know.

Costner was speaking Tuesday after the Legislative Ethics Commission, meeting with barely a quorum present, failed to find former Democratic state Rep. John Arnold guilty of sexually harassing Costner and two other women, all Black.

The commission staff had recommended finding Arnold guilty.

The vote was four to one guilty on each of three counts. But five votes are required for a majority on the nine-position commission. Three members were absent and one position has been vacant for two years.

The case was on the agenda for the February commission meeting but, at the request of Arnold's attorney, was delayed indefinitely. It could, and should, have been delayed again when it was evident so many commissioners would be absent for such an important case.

On Tuesday the only nay vote was that of Elmer George, an attorney active in Democratic politics, who was appointed in January, after the charges were filed, by House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

Stumbo, who has been under fire for how the harassment complaints were handled, declared victory, saying testimony Tuesday showed "we acted to protect our employees."

However, a special legislative committee appointed by Stumbo to investigate the complaints wound up taking no action.

No wonder Costner and the other women who filed charges, Gloria Morgan and Cassaundra Cooper, are both frustrated and hurt.

"No one understands the trouble that African-American women have gone through," Costner said. "We still can't be respected."

Arnold's alleged groping, attested to by witnesses, went far over the line, including pulling panties, spanking, rubbing backs and shoulders and verbal abuse after the women complained.

George, the lone no vote, bailed on a technicality, saying that since Arnold had resigned he didn't believe the commission had jurisdiction.

That's a very odd reason.

The commission wasn't being asked to decide if it could still discipline Arnold but whether he had violated legislative ethics while he was still serving.

Arnold resigned months ago, so George had plenty of time to ask staff to research the issue if it troubled him so. And, if he still felt it wasn't the commission's place to vote, he could have stayed home or declined to vote.

Whether politics or indifference is at the heart of it, this whole thing has been mishandled, from the do-nothing committee to the paltry quorum.

That sends a very clear, and very bad, message to women working for the General Assembly.

In the words of Costner: "You have to take the spanking on the butt. You have to take your underwear being pulled. You have to take being verbally assaulted. No one is going to care about it. If you want to keep your job and position, keep your mouth shut."

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