Politics & Government

Herald-Leader sues Kentucky legislature for documents related to sexual harassment

Kentucky House of Representatives
Kentucky House of Representatives Herald-Leader photo

The Lexington Herald-Leader filed a lawsuit late Monday against the Legislative Research Commission, seeking documents related to a sexual harassment complaint filed in 2015 against a member of the House of Representatives.

State Rep. Jim Stewart III, R-Flat Lick, was accused of harassing a legislative staffer in a complaint lodged with the LRC in early 2015, according to an internal House Republican memo obtained by the Herald-Leader.

Stewart has denied any knowledge of a complaint filed against him, though the internal memo said Stewart agreed to “cease all communication with the staffer.”

The Herald-Leader filed an open records request on March 9 asking for documents related to the complaint, which LRC Director David Byerman denied in a letter dated March 14. The LRC cited attorney-client privilege and claimed the documents were exempt from the Open Records Act because they were preliminary in nature, would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and might harm an ongoing administrative adjudication.

The newspaper asked the LRC to reconsider its decision on March 26, making clear that it does not object to redacting the name of the staffer involved. The agency did not respond to that request, so the newspaper filed an appeal of Byerman's decision with the governing board of the LRC, which consists of 16 legislative leaders.

In a document dated Monday, the lawmakers upheld Byerman's decision to withhold the records.

Along with the reasons Byerman cited in his initial response, the commission cited Section 39 of the Kentucky Constitution, which says each chamber of the General Assembly may determine its own rules for punishing a member.

The newspaper contends in its lawsuit that "none of the exceptions to the Open Records Act cited by the LRC apply to the Herald-Leader’s request, nor are the documents protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege or any exemption granted by Section 43 of the Kentucky Constitution."

LRC spokesman Rob Weber declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Stewart (2)
State Rep. Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick Legislative Research Commission

The allegations against Stewart originally surfaced in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed against the LRC by former House Chief Clerk Brad Metcalf, who was fired in January.

The Herald-Leader later obtained an internal memo written by Metcalf dated February 10, 2015, in which Metcalf says he was informed by then-LRC Human Resources Director Roy Collins that a legislative staffer had alleged Stewart “made unwanted verbal advances toward her, using language and tonality that she did not approve of” over an extended period of time.

“Recently, the intensity of the inappropriate remarks has carried over into various public settings, and has led to a great deal of embarrassment” on the part of the woman, he wrote. Stewart had obtained the woman’s cell phone number and “began making calls to her throughout the day and after work hours,” which prompted the woman to file a complaint with Collins, according to the memo.

Collins and then-LRC General Counsel Laura Hendrix met privately with Stewart on Feb. 9, the memo said, and Stewart agreed to “cease all communication with the staffer.”

Hendrix was recently named general counsel for the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Stewart is the seventh Kentucky lawmaker who was accused of sexual misconduct in accusations that surfaced in the last year, amidst a nationwide movement of women speaking out against sexual harassment.

In July, State Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, was accused of groping a then 30-year old man. Months later, it was revealed that four Republican House members — former House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown; Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green; Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland; and Rep. Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge — had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint made by a legislative staffer. In December, allegations surfaced that former state Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Mt. Washington, had once been accused of molesting a 17-year-old girl.

All of the men denied the allegations against them and the Legislative Ethics Commission found that DeCesare, Linder and Meredith did not violate the legislature's code of ethics. None of the lawmakers have resigned, although Hoover stepped down from his role as Speaker of the House in January. Johnson killed himself and DeCesare and Linder are not seeking re-election.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting also is involved in two lawsuits seeking documents related to sexual misconduct in state government.

The Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet and the Kentucky Labor Cabinet have sued the Louisville media outlet to prevent releasing details about employees accused of sexual harassment. The Office of the Kentucky Attorney General had ruled that the agencies violated the Kentucky Open Records Act by refusing to release names of employees who were accused of harassment but an investigation didn't substantiate the claim.