FRANKFORT — A sexual harassment scandal in the Kentucky House has surfaced in the race for majority whip in next week's House Democratic leadership elections.
State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to his Democratic colleagues that he received a "shocking email" this week from one of the women who have alleged they were sexually harassed by former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis.
The email detailed "how a legislator running for a House leadership position was telling other legislators of his intent to 'clean house,' including terminating her employment if elected," Riner wrote in his letter.
Riner did not name the lawmaker or the employee, but an attorney for one of the women identified the candidate Friday as state Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow. Bell is challenging Rep. Tommy Thompson of Owensboro for majority whip.
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Bell, an attorney who has been in the House since 2007, said in a telephone interview that he has given no thought to staffing if he should win the leadership race.
Bell also strongly denied the claim by Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, who is representing Legislative Research Commission employee Yolanda Costner, that Bell is angling to replace Costner in the majority whip's office with one woman in particular.
"That's a damn lie," Bell said.
Riner, D-Louisville, said he received an email Wednesday from Costner that he said "had specific information that one of the candidates for House leadership planned to fire her."
Costner's email prompted Riner to put in the mail Thursday an "open letter to all House Democratic legislators."
In his letter, Riner said he started asking many of the candidates running for Democratic House leadership positions if they would continue to employ the four workers who have made sexual harassment complaints. He also said he has asked them if they would vote to release an outside study of the LRC's management, which was completed last spring.
Riner said the women had told him months ago that they believed their jobs were in jeopardy.
Riner urged his House Democratic colleagues to ask candidates for leadership positions if they supported firing "any of the women who have reported sexual harassment in the Capitol" and their position on releasing the study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In an interview, Riner declined to identify the candidate he thinks wanted Costner fired.
Costner also would not identify the candidate, referring questions to Clay, her attorney.
Clay said Friday that lawmakers should know that a dismissal of Costner would be "unlawful retaliation" against her for engaging in activity protected by "whistleblower" laws and that replacing Costner would constitute unlawful "quid pro quo discrimination."
Riner, a Baptist minister, initially informed House members about allegations of sexual harassment in the chamber during a 2013 floor speech.
Later that year, Costner and legislative staffer Cassaundra Cooper filed a lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court accusing Arnold of sexual harassment.
Arnold has denied any wrongdoing in the case, which is pending in court.
In another lawsuit filed in Franklin Circuit Court, legislative staffer Nicole Cusic sued state Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, alleging that he took steps that led to her transfer after she accused him of "inappropriate conduct" toward female staffers and interns in 2012.
Coursey has denied any wrongdoing and has filed a defamation lawsuit against Cusic in Marshall Circuit Court.
Clay represents the three women. A fourth female legislative staff member, Gloria Morgan, filed a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission against Arnold.
Last May, the ethics panel found Arnold guilty of three ethics charges, but Arnold has asked the Franklin Circuit Court to dismiss its decision, saying it had no jurisdiction.