Moment of truth for Ky legislature

The scandals mounting at the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission will be dismissed by many as business as usual in Frankfort. Legislators with roving hands, mysterious reassignments, Sunday evening document shredding, a general air of good-ole-boyism.

That's the shame, or at least a big part of it.

The LRC is the product of a revolution in the 1970s when the General Assembly threw off its traditional role as a rubber stamp for an all-powerful governor and asserted its right, even obligation, to act as a check on the executive. To do that, the legislative body, made up of part-time elected officials, needed a full-time, independent and professional staff to research public policy and draft legislation.

The current crisis — not the first in the LRC's history — offers a glimpse into how that role has been eroded.

And how legislative leadership responds to this crisis will tell us whether the General Assembly will re-assert the ideals of that revolt or be satisfied with a more partisan staff that will serve individual political careers more often than the interests of good government.

The commission itself is made up of 16 members of leadership in the House and the Senate, with Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, as co-chairs. This group will hire a new leader for the LRC in the wake of the resignation 10 days ago of Bobby Sherman.

The new director will take over an agency of about 300 permanent employees that is mired in allegations related to sexual misconduct and questionable management practices. Sherman, an LRC veteran who was named director in 1999, resigned following charges that his office had mishandled allegations by female staffers that they had been groped by a legislator.

Remarkably, Sherman returned to his office after he resigned and shredded documents. The State Police announced last week that they will investigate.

But the fact that Sherman had access to the office outside regular office hours when he was no longer on staff and, with several staffers present, felt free to shred documents, indicates a loosey-goosey attitude toward public trust, professionalism and transparency that's deeply disturbing.

Beyond that, stories out of the LRC, including allegations that Sherman had a long-standing affair with a staff member, feed an uneasy sense that complaints about inappropriate behavior by men in power might not have been taken seriously. Less tantalizing but equally serious, are reports of a personnel system so lax that employees don't receive regular performance evaulations, and that the basis for and timing of raises is inscrutable to all but an inner circle.

Taken together, a picture emerges of something more like a petty dictatorship than enlightened management.

The future of the LRC, and with it the legitimacy of the legislative reforms of two generations ago, rest with Stumbo. Stivers and their fellow commissioners. They can gloss things over, ride out this mess and wait for the next crisis.

Or they can hire a leader with the management skills, and the mandate, to re-establish the commission's important role in Kentucky government.