Herald-Leader Editorial

Botched harassment case deserves a rehearing

April 16, 2014 

We will add our voice to the growing roar insisting that the Legislative Ethics Commission, when it meets next month, must decide to reconsider the sexual harrassment charges against former Rep. John Arnold.

Both Arnold and the three women who have brought distressing charges of both physical and verbal abuse, deserve a hearing before something more than the bare quorum they got last week.

Eight of the nine positions on the commission are filled and, of those, three were absent, leaving only five people to hear the case. When one voted against the charges they were dismissed because it took all five to make a majority.

Commission Chairman George Troutman, who did attend the meeting, said last week he pays little attention to how many commissioners plan to attend meetings. He needs to get to work and encourage attendance. And people who have accepted seats on the commission need to show up to do their work.

The commission has a remarkably bad attendance record in general. Last year, there was not full attendance at any of the three meetings. Two members have missed all three meetings so far this year and another has missed two.

Troutman seemed to find it acceptable that commissioners put vacationing in Florida ahead of meetings. "This is not a job for everybody," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "it's a public service basically."

This argument crops up a lot when public boards and commissions fall down on the job. Essentially, though, it devalues public service, the people who take it seriously and the public that depends on their good judgement. It's a given that this work is unprofitable, can be difficult and contentious. But those who accept the appointments must show up and do the work.

The ethics commissioners, though, are only the last people to fail in this case. The vacant spot on the commission — which must be recommended by the leaders of both the Republican Senate and Democratic House — has been open for two years.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo's office said this week he had offered a nominee but Senate President Robert Stivers had not agreed to that person. Please, get over it, and fill the open seat.

The legislative response to these specific charges has been botched at pretty much every turn. It's open to debate whether it can be chalked up to sexism in the male-dominated Capitol, racism (the accusers are black, Arnold is white, as are most members of the General Assembly), an institutional instinct to sweep problems under the table hoping they'll disappear, or simply a culture of indifference to how women in subordinate positions are treated.

The outrage that followed the ethics commission's action, or inaction, seemed to finally get the attention of elected officials, who have devoted a lot of time since to blaming each other — House vs. Senate and Democrats vs. Republicans — for insensitivity and indifference.

We would all be better served if they channeled their outrage to more productive activities. They must create a system and a culture in which reports of inappropriate behavior toward staff members are taken seriously, investigated swiftly and, when offenses are discovered, insures those responsible are disciplined appropriately.

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