Politics & Government

How a single sentence split apart the Kentucky House Republican Caucus

House Republicans give ‘full support’ to Jeff Hoover 'right now'

House MajorIty Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, told reporters on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, that House Speaker Jeff Hoover has the ‘full support’ of the House GOP caucus after a report surfaced that Hoover settled a sexual harassment complaint last
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House MajorIty Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, told reporters on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, that House Speaker Jeff Hoover has the ‘full support’ of the House GOP caucus after a report surfaced that Hoover settled a sexual harassment complaint last

It came tumbling down with a single sentence.

“Right now, Jeff Hoover is Speaker of the House and he has the full support of the caucus,” House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell told a wall of reporters and television cameras Friday.

Those five words — full support of the caucus — were supposed to show unity behind the first Republican Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 96 years amid troubling allegations of a sexual harassment settlement. Instead, they set in motion a shocking Saturday for Kentucky Republicans, one that exposed several internal rifts in the party.

The governor and speaker squared off, hands on their holsters, as the Republican caucus waged its own battle of words. Every time Republican leadership attempted to create the illusion of unity, members were swift to strike it down.

Then Hoover, R-Jamestown, conceded defeat. After adamantly refusing to step down for two days as pressure mounted, Hoover resigned his leadership role Sunday.

Of all people, it was Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, who first became the voice of moral authority on the matter.

A freshman Representative who had been effectively benched by leadership after a pattern of filing bills that gave the appearance of self-enrichment, he sent out a flurry of tweets late Friday night and early Saturday that called for the resignation of Hoover.

In the process, Morgan revealed that three more GOP lawmakers were accused of sexual harassment and that the House Republican Caucus chief of staff was accused of creating a hostile work environment.

As the names were made public, and with news that the governor would be holding a press conference, House leadership continued to insist that Hoover had the full support of the caucus, though they would be pursuing an independent investigation into the allegations.

So Gov. Matt Bevin weighed in. Standing in the Capitol Rotunda, he too called for Hoover to resign and with him, any other member who has settled a sexual harassment case.

“The people of Kentucky deserve better,” Bevin said. “We appropriately demand a high level of integrity from our leaders, and will tolerate nothing less in our state.”

Saturday night, the Bible-study teacher from Russell County refused to back down. He issued a statement saying it was political expediency that caused Bevin to call for his resignation, not moral authority.

“In effect, the governor seeks to be judge, jury, and executioner without hearing the evidence,” Hoover said. “One must wonder why he is so motivated to attack us unless his goal is to remove a voice that dares on occasion to disagree with him as I have done when he has made unnecessary statements attacking our teachers, state workers and retirees who are simply looking for better solutions to very serious problems facing our state.”

Until Thursday, Hoover had rarely made public statements disagreeing with the governor in a substantial way. His most scathing commentary during the drafting of the pension bill consisted of expressing his disappointment with some of the language used by Bevin when discussing the pension crisis.

Soon, eight more Republican members of the House called on Hoover and the other representatives involved to resign.

“We are shocked and angered by the allegations of sexual harassment, none of which have been denied or even disputed,” the statement said. “Contrary to what has been reported, the Representatives at issue did not have the ‘full’ support of the entire republican caucus.”

On Sunday, Hoover choked up as he officially resigned as speaker of the House.

He apologized for sending inappropriate text messages, said there were never any sexual relations and remained adamant that the relationship was never non-consensual. He said he went to mediation over the sexual harassment allegations and that neither he nor any others admitted guilt. He said there was not a culture of sexual harassment in the House of Representatives.

There are still several unanswered questions. In fact, the very same questions Hoover posed in a 2014 floor speech after sexual harassment allegations came out against a Democratic lawmaker, have not been answered.

“Who knew what? When did they know it? What action did they take?” Hoover asked in 2014.

If you take House Republican leadership’s word for it, they knew nothing of a culture that involved “verbal and physical harassment” of members of the staff.

“Our message to the people of Kentucky is that we take allegations of inappropriate conduct seriously. We must generate an independent report on the facts and make decisions regarding leadership and staffing based on those facts,” House Republican Leadership said in a joint statement Saturday. “…There will be no knee-jerk reactions, just as there will be no ignoring of the serious nature of the allegations and rumors.”

It turns out that for at least two months, serious allegations were ignored.

Mere hours after that statement was issued, a senior staffer revealed that she had brought complaints of a “toxic” work environment to Hoover in the beginning of September. Then two weeks later to the chief of staff and general counsel for the House Republican Caucus. Then to officials within the Legislative Research Commission.

The day after she took the complaints to the LRC, and as news of the scandal broke, she was effectively put on a paid suspension.

Meanwhile, a pension crisis, a budget session and a promise of tax reform linger over Frankfort. Could this lead to a larger rift within the party that could potentially derail their ability to lead?

In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll get some of those answers. In the meantime, one thing is certain: The Republican Party of election day that stood on the stage in the Galt House donning red hats as they celebrated their landslide victory is a distant memory.

Gov. Matt Bevin addressed sexual harassment claims regarding members of the state House. "The people of Kentucky deserve better than the type of shenanigans that have gone on for far too long in this town."

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

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