Politics & Government

Republicans scramble after report says House speaker settled sex harassment claim

House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, shown in 2016, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a report that he had settled a sexual harassment claim made by a member of his staff.
House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, shown in 2016, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a report that he had settled a sexual harassment claim made by a member of his staff. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Kentucky Republicans had little to say Thursday after a news report Wednesday night that House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, recently settled a sexual harassment claim made by a member of his staff.

“While we condemn sexual harassment in any form, current reports are based on nothing more than anonymous sources and third-hand copies of text messages,” said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “Consequently, we don’t feel it would be appropriate to comment any further at this time.”

Lawmakers and party officials scrambled Thursday to measure the impact of an anonymously sourced report by Courier Journal saying that Hoover, one of the most powerful Republicans in Frankfort, reached a settlement with a female staff member who alleged sexual harassment over an extended period.

The Courier Journal detailed several text messages that were allegedly sent by Hoover and the staffer. Those messages were referenced in a demand letter the staffer recently sent to Hoover, according to the newspaper.

Hoover’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but he took part in a 90-minute forum in Somerset Thursday evening arranged by the Kentucky Education Association for teachers and other public employees to ask questions and voice concerns about proposed changes to the state’s underfunded employee pension systems.

“I cannot and will not have any comment,” he told a reporter after the meeting when asked about the sexual harassment allegations.

The Kentucky Democratic Party called Hoover’s alleged actions immoral.

“Sexual harassment is handled very seriously in the workplace, and the speaker’s office in our statehouse should operate on a higher standard,” said Mary Nishimuta, executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “This isn’t a political issue but a moral one. We can’t expect to work toward a better future for our state if misogyny is not just accepted but practiced by our lawmakers.”

Republican members of the House of Representatives were slow to pass judgment on Hoover but said the allegations will hamper efforts to overhaul Kentucky’s ailing public pension systems.

State Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, said the news “comes at the very worst time. We need to focus on pension reform.”

He said he would reserve commenting on Hoover “until the facts are completely out.”

State Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, said he wouldn’t comment until he speaks to Hoover, but he acknowledged that “if it’s true, it’s unacceptable behavior.”

State Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, would not say whether he still supports Hoover as speaker of the House. He said he expects Hoover’s future to be a topic of discussion during a House Republican caucus meeting scheduled for Friday. The meeting was originally supposed to address the pension reform debate.

State Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, said she hadn’t yet read Courier Journal’s story, and Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, said he “just got word of it.”

State Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Shepherdsville, said he is “a supporter of Jeff Hoover. I believe he will come through this.”

Calls to other members of the House Republican caucus Thursday went unanswered. A spokesperson for Gov. Matt Bevin also declined to comment.

Thomas Clay, an attorney for the victim, said, “I cannot and will not say anything.”

Although no lawmakers immediately called for Hoover’s resignation, at least one Kentucky Republican did.

David Adams, a former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, posted Wednesday night on Facebook that “Kentucky needs a new House Speaker.”

Two Democratic women in the state House said they were disappointed but not shocked by the news.

“I’ve seen this too many times in our culture,” said state Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington.

Asked if Hoover should resign as speaker, Flood said “I will leave that to the House Republican caucus. Given our president’s treatment of women, I’m not sure what the caucus will do.”

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville said the incident “just shows the good old boy mentality in the legislature still remains. Don’t they ever learn? It’s not right to have a workplace filled with such action.”

House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said he had no comment about Hoover because he only knows what has been reported in the media.

“However, I want to make crystal clear that the General Assembly has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any form of harassment,” said Adkins. “The public sector has made great strides in creating harassment-free places of employment, and I will not accept anything that moves us away from that direction.”

Hoover, 57, is married with three daughters and is a Sunday school teacher at his church in Russell County. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1996 and has led the House Republicans since 2001. Shortly after Republicans won a super majority in the House, Hoover was elected the first Republican speaker of the House in 95 years.

It’s not the first allegation of sexual harassment in Frankfort. In 2014, former State Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, was accused of sexually harassing two female staffers and was eventually found guilty of violating the Legislative Branch’s ethics code. Earlier this year, state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, was accused of sexually harassing a then-30-year-old man in 2005.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics