FRANKFORT — The Kentucky legislature will pay $400,000 to settle sexual harassment and hostile workplace lawsuits filed in 2013 by three female employees who complained of lewd behavior by lawmakers, their attorney said Thursday.
The settlements — which have not been filed yet in Franklin Circuit Court — end a statehouse scandal that embarrassed House Democrats and brought the resignations of Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, who was accused of stalking and unwanted touching, and longtime Legislative Research Commission executive director Bobby Sherman.
"Unfortunately, I don't think (lawmakers) have learned anything from all this," said Thomas E. Clay, who represents the legislative staffers.
"I think they were only motivated to settle because they were getting very nervous about areas of political sensitivity we were entering into during the discovery process, with depositions and that sort of thing," Clay said. "I'm getting information that suggests this sort of behavior unfortunately still goes on at the legislature."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening. Internal documents uncovered by the lawsuits revealed Stumbo and other House Democratic leaders were told about the women's sexual harassment complaints and Sherman's ultimately futile attempts to privately resolve them before they were made public.
State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said the six-figure payout should serve as a wake-up call for the legislature.
"A legal settlement like this is something that should make our leadership think about the consequences of turning their heads and looking the other way when women are mistreated," Westrom said at the Capitol.
"I hope that we will set a new standard, from here on out, and make it clear that such behavior toward anyone will not be tolerated," she said. "My desire would be that anyone's daughter, spouse or mother who walks in here will know they are coming into a safe workplace with high ethical standards and transparency."
Both lawsuits were filed in October 2013.
In one suit, Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper said Arnold sexually harassed them at the Capitol. Arnold denied wrongdoing but resigned. His lawyer later said Arnold might have been suffering from dementia and uncontrollable behavior problems while he served in the General Assembly.
The Legislative Ethics Commission last year found Arnold guilty on three counts of inappropriate conduct related to the women's complaints, issuing a $1,000 fine and a public reprimand for every count. Arnold appealed that finding to Franklin Circuit Court.
In the other lawsuit, LRC employee Nicole Cusic alleged she was moved to an inferior job after she complained that Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, had sexually harassed female legislative staffers.
Coursey denied the claim. He still sits in the House.
Speaking Thursday from her Lexington home, Costner, one of the plaintiffs, said she was "just thankful to close that chapter of my life and move on."
Costner was an executive adviser to House Democratic leadership when she sued. She's now unemployed. House Majority Whip Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, fired her in January with a letter that said her services no longer were required.
"By the time we pay the attorneys' fees, it won't be that much money," Costner said. "But it wasn't about the money in the first place. It was about justice. I did my job for the state of Kentucky as well as I could for 25 years, and for my career to end in sexual assault and a dismissal, it was just very disappointing."
Several state officials went to court to ask that their depositions in the cases be kept out of the public record, including Coursey, Sherman and state Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat who chairs the House majority caucus and is running for lieutenant governor.
"There is a lot of stuff that will stay buried, some pretty raw information about what goes on in Frankfort, because these cases are going away now," said Clay, the women's attorney.
After Sherman resigned as LRC executive director in 2013 following sharp questions about his leadership in the wake of the harassment scandal, the National Conference of State Legislatures sent a team to Frankfort to study the legislative agency. It issued a critical report calling the LRC a "frustrated" workplace whose 388 employees struggle with poor morale, in part because of perceived favoritism for certain insiders and a lack of merit-based hiring and promotion.
The LRC, led by Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has yet to replace Sherman or act on the report's recommendations.