FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo set the stage Thursday for the possible censure or expulsion of a Western Kentucky lawmaker for allegedly sexually harassing three female legislative staffers.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, filed a petition with the House clerk to launch an investigation by eight House members into the conduct of John Arnold, a 69-year-old Democratic lawmaker from Sturgis.
"I have decided to take this action so that the full House will have the opportunity to review the evidence and the recommendation of the eight-member investigative committee I shall appoint tomorrow, after speaking with candidates from both the majority and minority caucuses," Stumbo said in a news release.
Stumbo said he believes strongly in due process in legal matters, "but we need to be ready if the findings show that these acts did indeed take place."
The House leader said that he did not take his decision lightly and that the issue needs to be resolved quickly. He also noted that the Kentucky Constitution gives each chamber of the General Assembly authority to punish a member for disorderly behavior and, with a two-thirds vote, to expel a member.
Arnold has been suspended as chairman of the House Budget Review Subcommittee on General Government, Finance and Public Protection, Stumbo said. He added that all members of House Democratic leadership, as well as House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover and Gov. Steve Beshear, have unanimously approved his actions.
Three Legislative Research Commission employees — Yolanda Costner, Cassaundra Cooper and Gloria Morgan — have accused Arnold of sexually harassing them and have filed complaints against him with the Legislative Ethics Commission. Morgan also has filed a complaint with the Legislative Research Commission, accusing the agency that provides support to lawmakers of failing to investigate her allegations against Arnold.
Arnold has not publicly commented on the allegations.
Louisville lawyer Thomas Clay, who is representing Costner and Cooper, said Thursday he was not impressed with Stumbo's actions.
"This thing has been clearly investigated since earlier this year," said Clay, referring to the LRC's hiring of Hyden lawyer Cheryl Lewis, an expert in employment law, to investigate the allegations. "What has she been doing?"
A call to Lewis' office for comment was not returned.
LRC director Bobby Sherman said this week that her work was ongoing. Lewis was hired as a nonpartisan staffer at $125 an hour to investigate the complaints.
Lourdes Baez, a spokeswoman for Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Thursday that Stivers was never informed of Lewis' hiring, although he should have been.
Stumbo said the allegations have become "a distraction."
"I know of no other way to deal with the matter even though the complaints are under review by the Legislative Ethics Commission," he said. "Some have legal questions about their jurisdiction, and they have only limited authority concerning punishment."
Stumbo's petition cites the House's constitutional and statutory authority to carry out the needed investigation and to take possible action in the 2014 regular session of the General Assembly that begins in January.
Under Stumbo's petition, a special House committee will have the authority to summon Arnold "to answer the charges, to take testimony and make an official record and issue a report ..."
"The integrity of our chamber needs to be above reproach, and I intend to see that we accept nothing less," Stumbo said. "I wish none of this had to occur, but I am committed to seeing it resolved in a way that is swift, fair and transparent."
Stumbo also said that he and other members of the majority and minority House leadership met last Friday and agreed that LRC director Sherman's actions "need to be thoroughly reviewed by an independent source to ensure that our employees are protected and provided a safe working environment."
"I believe we all agreed that a final report from the director should be made before such an investigation," he said.
Stumbo's petition came a day after Stivers told the Lexington Herald-Leader that all 16 House and Senate leaders should meet in executive session next Wednesday to discuss the handling of the complaints. Stumbo said Wednesday that it was too soon for legislative leaders to review how the complaints were handled.
On Thursday, Stumbo said he did not object to a meeting of legislative leaders next week "so long as it follows our existing policies to protect vulnerable employees."
Stivers said in an email that Stumbo has been "inconsistent" since the sexual harassment allegations became public.
"While I applaud the speaker for seeking proportional punishment for the alleged acts, that does not resolve the problem of the legislature's exposure to threatened litigation and money judgments," Stivers said.
Stivers said Stumbo's action "also does not resolve the most significant problem, which is how to address the culture that has been exposed by the actions of Rep. John Arnold."