Hey, Kentucky lawmakers, women staffers are not your sexual prey

Imagine being 21 years old, excited about your new job with the Kentucky legislature, hopeful that it will lead to a career in politics, only to be groped, pawed and ogled almost daily by a powerful lawmaker who is your boss, is more than twice your age and sometimes screams at you for talking to other men.

That is how the woman who settled a sexual harassment complaint with former House Speaker Jeff Hoover and three other lawmakers describes, in newly revealed testimony, what she experienced as a staffer for the House Republican caucus.

What she describes is appalling and far more disturbing than the “inappropriate text messages” to which Hoover has admitted. Many voters probably accepted Hoover’s explanation at face value when they decided to re-elect him last November.

The woman testified under subpoena in a lawsuit brought against the Legislative Research Commission by two other Republican House staffers who say they suffered retaliation after reporting Hoover’s behavior.

Hoover’s lawyers want to cross examine the woman, which is fine. But Hoover is not on trial.

The General Assembly is on trial — before a jury of 2 million Kentucky women and a whole bunch of men who need to see the legislature make itself accountable this year.

Lawmakers still have not even made sexual assault or harassment a violation of their ethics code, despite several high-profile scandals.

The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, had no motive to lie when she testified in October in a sealed deposition that became public for the first time Jan. 15 after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Kentucky Public Radio obtained a copy. She signed a sealed settlement in 2017 that prevents her from publicly talking about the case.

She testified that Hoover grabbed her breasts, buttocks and vagina; that these assaults occurred “nearly daily,” and that she didn’t feel she could tell him to stop without risking her job.

She testified that, among other lewd propositions, Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, told her in explicit terms that he wanted to ejaculate on her. Charming.

If voters had known all that, they might not have re-elected Hoover or Meredith in November.

Now that everyone knows, the 2019 General Assembly must make it a priority to finally reckon with a sexist culture that accepts gropings on the Capitol elevator or lawmakers’ obscene propositions to employees as just part of the scene.

Women have made gains recently in both legislative seats and leadership posts, but the legislature remains dominated by men, many of whom would never perpetrate the kind of abuse described by Hoover’s victim. Others, however, adhere to a “what happens in Frankfort stays in Frankfort” code that produces abuses of power for which there are no checks.

Last year, the House approved a bill that would have made sexual harassment a punishable offense under the ethics code and would have created a hotline and formal process whereby the legislature’s politically appointed staffers — nonpartisan staff already have a reporting process — could report sexual harassment.

The Senate killed the bill.

Two similar bills, one sponsored by a Republican, one by Democrats, already have been introduced. Lawmakers should enact the strongest version possible.

It’s instructive that Hoover’s victim decided to challenge the treatment only after she was taught about sexual harassment as part of basic training in the Navy Reserve.

She had feared that if she reported Hoover, it would cost her her job and maybe even her career. She’s still afraid. “I absolutely loved my job that I was doing and wanted to continue to work in politics,” she testified. “Filing a police report or taking any action would ruin any chance of advancing, and I think my life now is a perfect example of that.” She said she was unemployed.

The woman said that when she reported Hoover’s behavior to her supervisors they told her to stay away from him. “I didn’t know what to do because he was my boss,” she testified. “He was coming on to me and I didn’t know how to handle it.”

House Republicans have convened a kangaroo court to nullify a Democrat’s one-vote victory. It will be interesting to see what process, if any, they follow to consider whether Hoover and Meredith should be expelled.

Sexual assault and harassment are illegal. Election to a legislative seat does not put anyone above the law. Unless they want Kentuckians to fear their daughters working in the Capitol, lawmakers must take real steps in this session to hold themselves accountable.