Politics & Government

Deal to end sexual harassment inquiry lets Jeff Hoover keep his Kentucky House seat

Jeff Hoover’s emotional admission to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission

Former Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover was required to admit that he violated the Legislative Ethics Code after he agreed to a settlement offered by the Legislative Ethics Commission Tuesday, April 20, 2018.
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Former Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover was required to admit that he violated the Legislative Ethics Code after he agreed to a settlement offered by the Legislative Ethics Commission Tuesday, April 20, 2018.

A little more than five months after a secret sexual harassment settlement agreement wreaked havoc on the Republican Party of Kentucky, former House Speaker Jeff Hoover reached another settlement Tuesday, this time with the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

Hoover, R-Jamestown, agreed to admit that he violated legislative ethics laws, pay a $1,000 fine and subject himself to a public reprimand. The deal means he will retain his seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives while keeping secret the details of his alleged harassment of a former House Republican staffer.

“I have acknowledged from day one publicly, privately, that the text message banter I engaged in with the staffer was inappropriate,” Hoover said in his mandated admission. “I acknowledge that again here today. I acknowledge that technically that would violate the ethics statute.”

It took attorneys for Hoover and the ethics commission less than an hour to come up with a settlement Tuesday morning and six of the panel’s seven members approved the deal. The commission could have recommended that the full Kentucky House of Representatives censure or expel Hoover.

“I think the right result was reached,” said Anthony Wilholt, chairman of the commission. “Probably if we had gone to a hearing, knowing what we know about the evidence, I’m guessing that this is about where we would have come down. A $1,000 fine and a public reprimand. And Rep. Hoover, the added thing here, was that he admitted that what he had done was wrong.”

Wilholt added that the decision spares Hoover and the woman, who the Herald-Leader is not naming because she is a victim of alleged sexual harassment, the embarrassment of having to undergo cross-examination. Instead, the panel made its decision based on a packet of material that included electronic messages between Hoover and the woman, the settlement agreement that Hoover and three other Republican House members reached with the woman and Hoover’s phone records.

John Phillips, an attorney representing the woman, said his client was comfortable with the settlement.

The only person who voted against accepting the agreement was Pat Freibert, the only woman on the commission.

“I think the public will be more accepting that justice had been done if the commission made the decision,” Freibert said. “I’m not comfortable with two attorneys making the decision.”

While no one was required to testify in a hearing, the deal made public the settlement agreement and text messages between Hoover and the woman. According to the settlement signed by all four lawmakers on October 25, 2017, the woman received $66,000 and her lawyers received $44,000. If any of them spoke about the agreement, they’d be subject to pay 60 percent of the settlement proceeds to the other parties.

The 49 pages of messages came from the phone of the woman. While some had previously been obtained by the Herald-Leader, many had not been made public. In one, after the woman says Hoover looks “perfect,” he responds by saying “Haha. Your job is secure unless you start lying like that!! Lol.”

Hoover also says in a text to her that another lawmaker “texted me about the sweat running down your chest.”

The commission’s decision comes a week after it dismissed the complaint made against three other Republican lawmakers: Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green; Rep. Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge; and Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland.

There still are two whistleblower lawsuits pending in Franklin Circuit Court filed by legislative staffers who alleged retaliation by Hoover and others for their efforts to report his alleged harassment of their coworker.

The four men named in the complaint are among seven Kentucky lawmakers who have been publicly accused of sexual harassment or abuse since last June. None have resigned, though one killed himself.

House Bill 9, which would add sexual harassment to a list of violations in the legislative ethics code, has stalled in the Senate.

Hoover’s admission of guilt Tuesday was similar to the emotional statement he made on the House floor in January, when he officially resigned as Speaker of the House. After the hearing, Hoover said he was satisfied with the result.

“It was best for me, I think it was best for the former staffer, I think it was best for our families and I think it was best for the process,” he said.

It’s not yet clear how Hoover’s admission of violating the state ethics code will impact his political future.

When asked if he would try to get elected speaker when the House chooses new leaders next January, Hoover said he was willing to serve the Republican caucus.

“It’ll be up to the caucus,” Hoover said. “But it is not something I have planned for at all.”

Wilholt said a public reprimand is often feared by politicians because it can be used against them in political campaigns.

“The worst thing that can happen, honestly, the fine’s not so important as that public reprimand,” Wilholt said. “…A public reprimand from an ethics commission? Politically that’s the bad thing.”

Hoover, though, has no opponent in his campaign for re-election in 2018.

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

State Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, announced he will step down from his leadership role in the Kentucky House of Representatives on Nov. 5, 2017.