Politics & Government

Committee investigating harassment complaints debates asking more legislative staffers to talk

Former state Rep. John A. Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis.
Former state Rep. John A. Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis. Photo provided

FRANKFORT — A member of the special House committee investigating allegations that a former state lawmaker sexually harassed staffers wants to invite all legislative employees to talk publicly or privately with the panel about sexual harassment in the legislature.

Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, also wants the House Special Committee on Investigation with three Democratic members and two Republicans to make two hires: an investigator to assist a yet-to-be-hired attorney for the panel and a court reporter to transcribe all testimony the panel hears.

But two Democrats on the panel expressed concerns Wednesday about Benvenuti's proposals. They came in the panel's second meeting since House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, established it in the wake of sexual harassment complaints against former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis.

Rep. Rita Smart of Richmond raised questions about the cost of making such hires and Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington said the panel should first hire an attorney and asked if the panel was going beyond its assigned duties.

Committee Chairman Jeffery Donohue, D-Fairdale in Jefferson County, ruled that Benvenuti's requests be placed on the agenda of the panel's next meeting on Oct. 16 with the hiring of an attorney.

Two female legislative staffers — Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner — have filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court against Arnold for sexual harassment. He has claimed he is not guilty of any sexual harassment.

In addition to Arnold, they named as defendants the state, Speaker Greg Stumbo in his official capacity and the Legislative Research Commission.

Stumbo set up the special investigative panel last month after the sexual harassment complaints became public in a House floor speech by Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville.

Benvenuti told reporters after Wednesday's committee meeting that the panel should investigate concerns by any and all LRC employees because "you can't view the allegations so far in a vacuum."

About 350 people work in the LRC, which provides research support to state lawmakers.

Benvenuti stressed the need to give LRC employees the opportunity to share information with the panel about any sexual harassment in their workplace.

"We encourage people to come forward. You present them with a meaningful venue to present information and you take that information and see where it leads you. That is typical investigatory process," he said.

"You can't make the assumption that nobody else knows anything else about this except for the people who have already come forward."

Chairman Donohue said Wednesday the panel does not plan to investigate a lawsuit against Rep. Will Coursey and does not plan to initiate any "gag order" to keep members of the panel from talking to the media.

Legislative staffer Nicole Cusic has sued Coursey, the Legislative Commission and former LRC executive director Robert Sherman.

She is claiming she was retaliated against when she was moved to a different office after she complained to Coursey, D-Symsonia, about what she said was his inappropriate behavior with a legislative intern. Coursey's attorney, Mark Edwards of Paducah, has said Coursey denies the allegations in the lawsuit.

The LRC has hired Lexington attorney Leslie P. Vose at a rate of $125 an hour to represent it in the two lawsuits.

The legislature's Programs Review and Investigations Committee canceled its meeting scheduled for Thursday to discuss the LRC's sexual harassment policy.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, said counsel advised him to cancel the meeting because of the pending lawsuits.

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