Kentucky House Republican leaders asked the Legislative Ethics Commission Friday to investigate a sexual harassment scandal among its members after receiving a preliminary investigative report on the matter from a Louisville law firm.
“We are asking the Ethics Commission to take it from here and subpoena anyone and any document they need to complete the work begun by Middleton Reutlinger,” House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne said in a news release. “There is still information we don’t have, and we believe the ethics commission can and should get it to give the people of Kentucky a full and complete picture of what happened.”
The scandal, which came to light last month, brought the resignation of state Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, as House speaker after news reports revealed he signed a confidential sexual harassment settlement involving a former legislative staffer.
Three other Republican House members —Michael Meredith of Edmonson County, Jim DeCesare of Bowling Green and Brian Linder of Oakland — also were involved in the settlement, as was House Republican Chief of Staff Ginger Wills, according to House GOP Communications Director Daisy Olivo, who has said she saw a demand letter sent by the accuser.
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Gov. Matt Bevin has urged all four to resign from the House but none has stepped down.
In his complaint to the ethics commission, Osborne said the law firm found no evidence to support claims that the settlement was funded, in part, by political donors, but “it was unable to rule it out because the members would not share the amount of the settlement and legal fees paid because of a confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement.”
Osborne asked the ethics commission to use its subpoena power to obtain a copy of the settlement and find out if any political donor or lobbyist provided any money.
The law firm’s report contained documents that showed Hoover borrowed an undisclosed amount of money at 4 percent annual interest from an undisclosed person or entity on Oct. 27. Hoover and his wife, Karyn Hoover, then borrowed another undisclosed amount at 6 percent interest from First National Bank in Jamestown on Nov. 6, the day after he stepped down from his leadership position in the House.
Documents also showed that Meredith and DeCesare were involved in financial transactions around the same time.
“The identity of these lenders and the absence of any improper source should be confirmed by the Legislative Ethics Commission or other authority with subpoena power,” the investigative report said.
Osborne said he was disappointed that one current House Republican staffer refused to cooperate with the investigation, as did the accuser, who has since left her state job.
The report also noted that each of the four lawmakers refused to discuss the demand letter, the allegations it contained or the terms of the settlement.
Hoover has previously acknowledged that he sent inappropriate text messages to the staffer, but denied that he or the other lawmakers engaged in sexual harassment.
The investigators said they did not turn up any additional messages between the accuser and the lawmakers, though it noted that they did not allow investigators to search their email accounts.
“No one other than the claimant reported any harassment, and she declined to be interviewed,” the law firm reported. “This does not mean other messages don’t exist, but we did not locate them ...”
The lawyers said they were unable to find “evidence of anything that would rise to the level of sexual harassment,” but the accusers lack of cooperation “leaves us unable to fully answer” the question of whether any lawmaker harassed a staff member.
The law firm said it found not “definite” violations of law or ethics rules, but recommended that ethics laws should be updated to ban secret settlements.
Osborne said the law firm confirmed there is no uniform system for reporting, investigating, or addressing workplace complaints for legislative staffers who work directly for lawmakers.
He said he is considering creating a task force to develop a formal system within the Legislative Research Commission, the research agency for state lawmakers, and the General Assembly to address all workplace complaints.
He said the task force should be bipartisan and bicameral and that he has asked Reps. Ken Fleming, R-Louiville, and Kim Moser, R-Independence, to develop the idea.
Osborne said he would like a recommendation on legislation before Feb. 15.
“We cannot wait to fix problems that have come to light as a result of this matter,” he said. “I am sending a letter to leadership in both parties in both chambers requesting their thoughts on and participation in a task force of this nature.”
House Republican members will be discussing the issue at its retreat next week, he said.
The law firm did not recommend firing any staffers in its report, but said “we are planning to follow up with a memo on internal personnel issues in the coming days.”
It also pointed out that partisan staff members are “at-will employees and can be terminated at the discretion of the House Leadership.”
House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, noted that State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, has previously requested an investigation of the sexual harassment scandal by the Legislative Ethics Commission.
He said the House Democratic caucus also supports Osborne’s call for “zero tolerance” of workplace harassment.