Politics & Government

Legislative leaders go behind closed doors to discuss sex-harassment allegations

Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, with clients Yolanda Costner, left, and Cassaundra Cooper.
Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, with clients Yolanda Costner, left, and Cassaundra Cooper. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — State legislative leaders, with the exception of House Democrats who declined to participate, met for nearly four hours Wednesday behind closed doors to discuss the handling of sexual harassment claims by two legislative aides against a Western Kentucky lawmaker.

The closed meeting in the Capitol Annex was held over the objections of attorney Thomas Clay of Louisville, who is representing Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner in their complaints against state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis. Arnold, 69, has not publicly commented on their claims.

Clay said the meeting of legislative leaders should have been open to let the public know what transpired.

He also said the problem of sexual harassment exists in the state legislature and involves current and former members. He did not elaborate but said the problem has gone on since the Kent Downey scandal in the mid-1990s.

Downey was the director of operations for the state House of Representatives. He ran a business from his state office that organized golf outings, often with exotic dancers as entertainment. He pleaded guilty in 1997 to federal prostitution and gambling charges and was sentenced to probation.

It remains to be seen, Clay said, if other sexual harassment complaints will be filed. He declined to comment when asked if other complainants have contacted him.

A third woman, Gloria Morgan, also has accused Arnold of sexual harassment. All three women have filed complaints against him with the Legislative Ethics Commission. Morgan also has filed a complaint with the Legislative Research Commission, accusing the agency that provides support to lawmakers of failing to investigate her allegations against Arnold.

Legislative leaders, also known collectively as the Legislative Research Commission, went into closed session on a 10-5 vote at 12:15 p.m. and ended it at 4:07 p.m.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said no action was taken during the closed session.

He said he did not know if any more meetings on the subject will be held.

"We've had a long executive session. We had information delivered to us and beyond that it would be inappropriate to comment as to anything else," Stivers said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and the other four House Democratic leaders who voted against the closed session did not attend it.

In a statement released after the closed session, Stumbo said, "In today's meeting of the Legislative Research Commission, we, the members of the House Democratic leadership, argued for the facts to be out in the public, and for the process to be transparent.

"We heard the LRC director (during an earlier open session) testify that appropriate action had been taken by me and our current House leadership staff when we first learned of the complaint in February. That should dispel any rumors that we did not carry out our duty."

Stumbo appointed a special legislative committee last week to look into the complaints. It could recommend Arnold's censure or expulsion.

Stumbo is receiving outside legal advice from Anna Whites, who is married to Stumbo's general counsel, Pierce Whites.

Anna Whites said in an interview that she is doing her legal work for Stumbo for free since her husband works for him.

During a nearly two-hour open session of the LRC meeting Wednesday morning, LRC director Robert Sherman said his office received two complaints against Arnold on Feb. 19 and notified Stumbo.

He also said initial findings by his staff were given to the complainants on Feb. 28.

But attorney Clay said his clients never received such information.

Clay said all options for his clients are on the table, suggesting likely litigation.

Sherman said the internal review of the complaints lasted until Aug. 27, when "final action" was taken. He did not say what that action involved.

The internal investigation, Sherman said, involved his hiring Hyden attorney Cheryl Lewis, an expert in employment law, at $125 an hour on June 11.

In answering a question from Stivers, Sherman said no one instructed him to hire Lewis.

Stivers defended the closed session, saying it was "a lawfully constituted session." He said an audio recording of it was made and will be held by the LRC, subject to a court order.

Asked what is the next step for the LRC in the sexual harassment complaints, Stivers said, "It is a fluid situation that is continuing and ongoing."

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