The bureaucratic arm of Kentucky’s General Assembly overhauled how it handles allegations of sexual harassment after a scandal rocked the legislature four years ago, but those changes don’t apply to a growing number of employees who work directly for legislative leaders.
That means it remains unclear who is responsible for reporting and investigating a staffer’s allegation that she was sexually harassed by House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown. According to the Courier Journal, Hoover settled the claim made against him after receiving a demand letter from an attorney hired by his staffer.
The sexual misconduct policy for partisan staff — the people who work in the leadership offices in the House and Senate — is set by each office’s party leadership. Typically, the policies involve reporting alleged harassment to the chief of staff, a political position with a vested interest in protecting the political party.
Hoover’s office directed questions about its sexual harassment policy Thursday to the Legislative Research Commission, but LRC spokesman Rob Weber said he could not provide any information about the sexual harassment policy of the House Republican Caucus.
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“Given the history, I think it’s important for all leaders to say they want an outside investigation by the LRC director using the policies and procedures of the Legislative Research Commission,” said state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville.
In 2013, former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, was accused of sexual harassment by two women in the Legislative Research Commission. Arnold claimed innocence, but resigned and was later found guilty by the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission of violating the state’s ethics code. Former LRC Director Robert Sherman also resigned.
At the time, the legislature was accused of not doing enough to protect Arnold’s victims. Hoover was one of the most vocal critics of the Democrats who led the House of Representatives.
“Who knew what, when did they know it, and what action did they take?” Hoover asked from the House floor in April 2014.
Under new leadership, the LRC rewrote its personnel policy for the first time in more than a decade and sexual harassment training became mandatory for everyone, including members of the General Assembly.
“They beefed up the whole way they do sexual harassment charges,” said Pam Thomas, who worked in the State Capitol for 25 years before joining the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Those changes, though, only apply to the LRC’s non-partisan staffers. Unlike most LRC employees, partisan staffers are hired by party leaders and have their salaries set by leading lawmakers.
The LRC’s sexual harassment policy for non-partisan staffers is very clear. If a staff member has a complaint, they can take it to their direct supervisor, who is then required to notify the human resources director of the LRC. If the person filing the complaint doesn’t feel comfortable taking it to their supervisor, they can take it to the second in command. If the person who files the complaint is not satisfied with the results of the investigation, they can appeal to the director of the LRC.
Brian Wilkerson, spokesman for House Democratic leaders, said the policy for House Democratic Caucus staffers is to report allegations of harassment to the caucus’ chief of staff. From there, the chief of staff may let one or more members of caucus leadership know about the claim and investigate it following guidelines laid out in the LRC’s personnel policy.
In the Senate Republican Caucus, partisan staffers have the same harassment policy as non-partisan LRC workers and are free “to go directly to the LRC” with their complaint, according to David Fleenor, the general counsel for Senate Republican leadership.
Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, R-Pikeville, did not respond to questions from the Herald-Leader about the sexual harassment policies of Senate Democrats.
There’s also uncertainty over how a complaint by a partisan staffer should be handled if it involves a member of the General Assembly.
If such a complaint is made by a non-partisan staffer, LRC policy dictates that the complaint will be investigated by the LRC’s assistant director for human resources and professional development. That policy, though, doesn’t apply to all partisan staffers.
When asked why the policy differs for partisan and non-partisan staffers, Weber, the LRC spokesman, said the information was not available to him.
“Regarding your questions, including the most recent one, I’ve provided all the information that’s available to me,” he said.
Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, said victims of sexual harassment are often afraid to complain because it may put their job in jeopardy or ruin their chances of professional advancement.
She said the harassment policies for partisan LRC staffers appear inadequate.
“With these policies, they’re really not sure how they can make it stop,” Recktenwald said. “Because that’s what they want: to make it stop and to keep their job.”
Wayne said he is concerned that having different policies for partisan and non-partisan staffers creates the opportunity for abuse of power.
“I think that could offer some loopholes that could be dangerous,” Wayne said. “Especially when leadership tries to give certain spins when there are problems.”
The problem is not unique to Kentucky. In Massachusetts, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has called for a comprehensive review of how the House handles sexual harassment complaints. In California, the legislature hired two outside investigators to examine the culture of sexual harassment in the statehouse.
The National Conference of State Legislatures recommends that legislatures have an “effective preventive program” that “should include an explicit policy against sexual harassment that is clearly and regularly communicated to employees and effectively implemented.”