Who’s that mystery man? Speaker of the House

The Kentucky House of Representatives
The Kentucky House of Representatives cbertram@herald-leader.com

Many, apparently most, House Republicans want to allow their on-again, off-again Speaker Jeff Hoover due process. That is reasonable, though politically risky since Democrats will have a field day with the sexual harassment claim against the House’s top Republican.

The claim against Hoover is entangled in an intra-party conflict involving Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP factions. Suffice it to say that political intrigue is thick under the Capitol dome as this session and legislative election year get rolling.

What’s not reasonable or acceptable is the assertion that this drama can or should play out in private.

On the first day of the session, Hoover announced that he was reversing his November decision to resign the speakership. Hoover also said that in light of a Legislative Ethics Commission investigation into his conduct, he was leaving Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne in charge of presiding over the House.

Asked on Tuesday whether Hoover is still participating in Republican leadership meetings, Osborne said, “I’m not going to talk about our internal meetings.”

Well, wait a minute. These “internal meetings” are not of some privately held company’s board. This is the leadership of the legislature, elected by and accountable to the people of Kentucky. Kentuckians need to know who’s pulling the strings.

Hoover remains a member of the two most powerful committees which control the flow of legislation. Hoover and his colleagues in leadership should further spell out what his role will be in this highly unusual situation.

While Hoover has admitted to inappropriate “sexting” with a former staffer, he has insisted that the exchanges were consensual. The day after Bevin and a number of Republican lawmakers demanded that Hoover resign from the House, Hoover announced that he would step down as speaker but remain in the legislature.

The ethics investigation, which was launched after separate complaints by Osborne and a Democratic lawmaker, could shed light on Hoover’s conduct leading up to the confidential settlement with the former staffer. The ethics investigation also is expected to look at the source of any funds that might have been paid as part of the settlement. We already know that no public funds were used to pay the accuser. Three other Republican lawmakers also were parties to the settlement.

The Legislative Ethics Commission has subpoena power, unlike the Louisville law firm that Osborne and other House Republican leaders first enlisted to investigate the sexual harassment claim but that was stymied when the accuser refused to talk. If a month’s time and $50,000 had not been wasted on that investigation, the House might be closer to a resolution.

Meanwhile, the House will launch its own investigation after eight Republican lawmakers filed a formal charge on Wednesday seeking Hoover’s expulsion. The House investigation is likely to be more political theater than anything else.

With subpoena power and a former prosecutor leading the investigation, the Legislative Ethics Commission is the best chance for clarity.

The legislature is facing big challenges, chief among them approving a two-year budget as state revenue falls short of even modest expectations, making this a bad time for the lower chamber to be in disarray.

It’s hard to gauge Hoover’s support since the Republican majority caucuses in private. But it’s safe to say that if most Republicans wanted him out and had coalesced behind a new leader, Hoover would have little choice but to step down.