Kentucky is at least $400,000 poorer and none the wiser after settling sexual harassment and hostile workplace lawsuits against members of our state legislature.
The settlement came almost two years after two female employees of the Legislative Research Commission, which provides staff for the legislature, filed ethics complaints alleging that Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, had touched them inappropriately — including grabbing underwear and slapping buttocks — and made lewd and vulgar comments over several years. They filed one of the two lawsuits resolved by the settlement announced last week. A second suit alleged that Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, retaliated against a woman who confronted him about sexually harrssing female interns and LRC employees. Coursey denied the charges.
The women, Yolanda Costner, Cassaundra Cooper and Nicole Cusic, had perfectly good reasons for wanting to settle. Calling out people in power is a thankless risk. The money they receive, after attorneys' fees, will not be much compensation for the harassment they suffered at work, not to mention the scrutiny and stress they and their families have endured since they went public.
Sadly, legislative leaders probably also had strong but not such good motivation to settle.
Thomas Clay, the attorney representing the three, said repeatedly that he would demonstrate that the harassment they alleged exemplified, "a culture (that) is much more widespread than just one representative and two LRC staff members."
Clay's an advocate so his words can be taken with a grain of salt but after two years we've learned little to set our minds at ease. Consider:
■ Several state officials, including former LRC director Robert Sherman, went to court to keep their depositions out of public view.
■ Sherman resigned on a Friday in September 2013 but returned to the office on Sunday to shred papers. A Kentucky State Police investigation found no evidence of criminal activity but it was later revealed that the KSP had not examined Sherman's computer files, a routine investigative step in such cases. The State Police said they would examine the computers.
■ Following Arnold's resignation, the Legislative Ethics Commission initially cleared him on a close vote with only five of eight members present. A ninth seat had remained empty for two years. In a rehearing, with more members present, the commission found Arnold guilty of three ethics violations and fined him $1,000. Arnold is appealing.
■ Legislative leaders hired the National Conference of State Legislatures to perform a management audit of LRC after issues arose about personnel, harassment and other procedures. A draft was delivered in April 2014 but not released to the public for a year. It described a toxic culture: "LRC staff are frustrated by an opaque, closed-door process ... (they) do not know how to develop their careers in a management environment that offers few clues about how performance connects to promotion, provides little explanation about how pay decisions are made, inconsistently sets minimum qualifications for jobs, and rewards certain individuals with pay increases while other requests for an adjustment languish." Despite this apparent crisis, LRC has limped along with an interim director and no significant reforms. Only recently did the search begin for a permanent director.
It's clear that politics has trumped principle at pretty much every turn. Democrats weren't eager to air dirty laundry about their own while Republicans wanted to keep the scandal, and Democratic pain, alive. Costner, who worked in the House majority whip's office, lost her job in January when newly-elected Whip Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, fired her. Republicans first blocked releasing the NCSL report then drug their feet on searching for a new director and killed a bill to require the LRC to establish a job-classification and compensation system and personnel procedures.
There's also a fundamental problem that no new director can solve. It's that the LRC works for the legislature. So, any effort to rein in an errant legislator is essentially an effort to discipline one of your bosses. Only legislators can solve that problem by establishing an arms-length and transparent process for investigating allegations by staffers against members of the General Assembly.
We are glad this settlement has vindicated the whistleblowers but sorry the citizens and taxpayers of Kentucky have been so ill served in this tawdry affair. Costner, speaking after the settlement was announced, said, "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."
It is disappointing.