FRANKFORT — Stung by criticism over its handling of sexual harassment allegations, the Kentucky House voted Monday to strengthen and diversify the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is supposed to police lawmakers' conduct.
However, House Speaker Greg Stumbo later denied that a culture of sexist behavior exists in the House. He blamed Republicans, who want to win control of the chamber in the fall elections, for exaggerating the scope of the problem.
"I think the Republicans are trying to make political hay out of something that just isn't there," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
The House voted 98-0 to amend Senate Bill 234, a measure to protect victims of sex offenses. Its amendment added language clarifying that former lawmakers can be punished by the Legislative Ethics Commission for offenses committed while in office and that sexual harassment is an ethics violation. It also required the House speaker and Senate president to pick some women and racial minorities as they fill seats on the nine-member commission.
The House then voted 99-0 to approve the amended bill and send it back to the Senate.
After the vote, state Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, who sponsored the amendment, said women sometimes have been treated disrespectfully at the legislature, where men dominate both chambers and most leadership posts. Lawmakers need to be aware of what comments and behavior are inappropriate, Jenkins said.
"Changing a culture is very difficult," Jenkins said. "It seems like when I was first here, I was saying, 'Don't say this' and 'Don't do that' all the time. It's like I was having to play Mom."
Monday's vote followed controversy over a decision last Tuesday by the Legislative Ethics Commission to not act against former state Rep. John Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis — a case that has put the House Democratic majority on the defensive.
Three female legislative aides accused Arnold last year of sexual harassment at the Capitol, including groping and crude comments. Arnold denied the allegations but resigned from the House. His attorney said Arnold suffered a series of mini-strokes and worsening dementia that "radically" decreased his intellectual capacity during his final years in the legislature, although he was re-elected in 2012 and House Democratic leaders subsequently chose him as chairman of a budget subcommittee.
The Legislative Ethics Commission voted 4-1 to fine and reprimand Arnold for his behavior. But under the commission's rules, at least five votes were needed to act. Three members did not attend the meeting, and an additional seat has been left vacant for years by legislative leaders.
The only no vote was cast by Elmer George, who was appointed in January by Stumbo. George said he didn't think the commission had the authority to punish a former member of the General Assembly.
Arnold's accusers have asked the commission for a re-hearing with all members present. That request might not be decided until the next scheduled meeting, May 13.
The commission has eight white members — five men, including the longtime chairman, and three women. Arnold also is white. The women accusing him of harassment are black.
The commission's failure to act spurred U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Democratic Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes to issue statements in recent days supporting Arnold's accusers and demanding a new hearing.
Although House Democrats said in a news release Monday that they prepared the amendment to SB 234 to show their concern for how women are treated at the Capitol, House Republicans said Democrats did almost nothing to address the Arnold case for most of the 2014 session.
Only after a public outcry about the ethics commission's failure to act did Democrats suddenly take notice, said GOP lawmakers.
"I am ready to make this a better place for women to work," state Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, said in a floor speech before voting for the amended bill.
Minutes after approving the amended bill, House Democrats took up a resolution to recognize "the courage" of the three women who reported the sexual harassment: legislative aides Cassaundra Cooper, Yolanda Costner and Gloria Morgan.
State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, proposed the resolution to honor the women for coming forward with their stories and for exposing a serious workplace problem at the Capitol. Another Democrat, Jim Gooch of Providence, quickly stood and objected, questioning whether the House should express support for its three female employees since they are suing Arnold and the legislature for damages in Franklin Circuit Court.
After conferring with chamber leaders, Stumbo ruled Riner's resolution to be out of order because the judge in the lawsuit might see it as an attempt at improper influence by the legislature. Later, Stumbo reversed his decision and allowed a vote on the resolution, which was adopted. Stumbo said he had sought the opinion of the Legislative Ethics Commission's staff and was assured that adopting the resolution would not affect the pending lawsuit.
Earlier in the day, Cooper said the case is certainly not going away.
"A tidal wave of attention has been brought to what happened on Tuesday (at the ethics commission)," Cooper said. "I'm happy for that, because it's getting the attention of people outside Frankfort. Constituents are calling in to their legislators and asking, 'What's this all about? Are you a part of this? What are you doing?'"
John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.