When former state Rep. John Arnold was found guilty of three ethics violations in a sexual harassment case in May 2014, he argued that the Legislative Ethics Commission had no authority to discipline him because he already had left the lawmaking body.
The ethics panel now wants the state legislature to clarify that it has the authority to rule on a complaint even if the lawmaker in question has resigned.
The Legislative Ethics Commission has several other recommendations for the legislature to consider in the 2018 General Assembly, which begins in January. They include not allowing the spouse of a legislator to be a lobbyist and requiring ethics training for legislative staff.
The recommendation focusing on the Arnold case “would clear up when the ethics commission can handle complaints against a legislator,” John Schaaf, its executive director, said Thursday.
Three years ago, Arnold was found guilty of three ethics charges in a case brought by three female legislative staffers, who said he had inappropriately touched them. He had resigned from the legislature in September 2013.
On a vote of 5-1, the commission issued a $1,000 fine and a public reprimand on each charge against Arnold.
His attorney, Steven Downey of Bowling Green, argued that the commission couldn’t punish a former legislator and said that Arnold, who denied wrongdoing, would appeal the panel’s decision to Franklin Circuit Court.
Schaaf said Wednesday that the commission’s ruling was appealed but that Arnold had agreed to a settlement and had paid a $1,500 fine.
Another recommended change would allow the ethics panel to make preliminary inquiries about an issue without a filed complaint. It cannot do that now.
If a preliminary inquiry without a complaint reveals possible violation of the law, Schaaf said, the commission’s enforcement counsel could file a complaint to allow the commission to investigate and issue possible penalties.
“We see stories in the newspaper that we would like to take a look at but cannot since we now need a complaint to proceed,” Schaaf said.
Here are the commission’s other recommended changes to the state legislative ethics code:
▪ Prohibit any mass mailing by a legislator at public expense within 90 days before a general election in even-numbered years, when state legislative seats are on the ballot.
“This would eliminate the perception that taxpayer dollars are used to assist a legislative campaign,” Schaaf said. “Their mailings always should be about their activities and not about their campaigns.”
▪ Prohibit the spouse of a legislator from being employed as a lobbyist.
“There’s no case of that now, but it was something drafters of the initial legislative ethics code wanted in 1993 but removed it for some reason prior to enactment,” Schaaf said.
He said that in 2004, the commission dismissed an ethics complaint against Robyn Edmonds Williams, the wife of David Williams, who was Senate president at the time..
The commission found that Robyn Edmonds Williams didn’t intentionally fail to register as a legislative lobbyist, but she had to pay an administrative fine of $250 for her late registration.
▪ Require ethics training for all legislative staffers and reduce required ethics training for legislators from three hours to two hours.
▪ Restrict political activity of the four staffers of the Legislative Ethics Commission in the same way that commission members are restricted.
The restrictions, Schaaf said, include not being a fundraiser for candidates for governor or the state legislature.