McConnell accuses Democrats of 'scrambling' to 'belatedly get it right' on sexual harassment case

syoungman@herald-leader.comApril 16, 2014 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

MATT GOINS — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he has a history of handling sexual harassment cases the right way, and Frankfort Democrats are "scrambling to try to belatedly get it right."

In an interview with the Herald-Leader, McConnell said a sexual harassment scandal in the Democrat-led state House "wasn't handled well."

McConnell, who is running for a sixth term, has been vocal about a controversial decision last week by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission to not punish former Democratic state Rep. John Arnold, who resigned last fall after three female staffers accused him of harassment. He has denied the allegations.

On Saturday, McConnell accused House Democrats of a "cover-up," saying the ethics commission should reopen the case. Likely Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes followed suit Monday, calling for a re-hearing of the case by the commission.

McConnell offered himself as an example of how elected officials should handle situations when a member of their own party is accused of sexual harassment.

"I think I demonstrated 19 years ago, in the toughest possible position, how this ought to be handled," McConnell said.

The senator was harking back to the case of then-Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, who was accused of sexual harassment shortly after Republicans had won control of the Senate and with McConnell sitting as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.

McConnell, who said Tuesday that sexual harassment "was not being treated very seriously in the country" at the time, made a motion to expel Packwood from the Senate. Packwood instead resigned.

"I did that 19 years ago," McConnell said. "I don't see much evidence of that going on in Frankfort right now. Maybe that will change."

However, some Democrats say McConnell's handling of the Packwood scandal resembles how House Speaker Greg Stumbo dealt with the Arnold scandal.

In August, Stumbo filed a petition for censure or expulsion of Arnold and appointed a committee of lawmakers to investigate their colleague. Arnold subsequently resigned, and the committee's work stalled as members argued about whether the committee had authority to punish a former lawmaker.

"The day we learned of the incident, we acted to protect our employees and instructed the Legislative Research Commission director to investigate the allegations and follow our policy," Stumbo said Wednesday in a statement. "Additionally, I personally filed a "petition for censure or expulsion," which resulted in former Rep. Arnold resigning his seat."

Last week, the 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.

On Monday, House Democrats hastily approved a bill to strengthen and diversify the ethics commission. The bill clarified that former lawmakers can be punished by the ethics panel for offenses committed while in office and that sexual harassment is an ethics violation. However, the Republican-led Senate did not take up the bill Tuesday, the final day of this year's legislative session. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said afterward that the proposal wasn't strong enough.

Since McConnell's initial reference to the 1995 Packwood episode on Saturday, the Grimes campaign has circulated an editorial from The New York Times that accused McConnell at the time of "bullying tactics that betray the committee's nonpartisan mission."

The battle at issue was between McConnell and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who pushed for a full Senate hearing of the case.

McConnell pushed back, threatening to call for similar hearings into allegations against former Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The editorial said that "it is improper for Mr. McConnell to hold the Packwood matter hostage to unrelated issues. That is an abuse of his power as chairman."

McConnell said at the time that he wanted to avoid the "circus" of a full hearing.

When asked Tuesday about that version of the events, McConnell said: "The way it ended was I made a motion to expel him from the Senate."

"He decided to resign short of that," McConnell said. "That's the toughest possible situation, when people you know, people of your same party, people of influence, have made a mistake, to step up to the plate and handle it the right way."

Other news articles from the time indicate that the majority of senators on both sides of the aisle praised McConnell for his handling of the matter despite Boxer's charge that many of the actions he took "were not proper."

Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who routinely battles with McConnell, praised the Kentucky senator's role in the process as "strong and resolute," according to a 1995 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"I think McConnell and the rest of the committee allowed the Senate to have one of its finest days," Reid said at the time. "It couldn't have happened without him."

McConnell used the episode in an ad during his 1996 re-election campaign, featuring footage of him at a news conference saying, "no workplace in America ought to tolerate the kind of offensive, degrading sexual misconduct that the ethics committee finds Sen. Packwood to be guilty of."

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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