Op-Ed

Suits may be settled but LRC, state deserve better

Cassaundra Cooper, left, and Yolanda Costner, right, with attorney Thomas Clay, were two of three Legislative Research Commission employees who received a $400,000 settlement from the legislature in response to their complaints of a hostile workplace and sexual harassment by former Rep. John Arnold. Arnold and former LRC head Bobby Sherman also paid settlements.
Cassaundra Cooper, left, and Yolanda Costner, right, with attorney Thomas Clay, were two of three Legislative Research Commission employees who received a $400,000 settlement from the legislature in response to their complaints of a hostile workplace and sexual harassment by former Rep. John Arnold. Arnold and former LRC head Bobby Sherman also paid settlements. Herald-Leader

A lifelong Kentuckian, I was blissfully ignorant of the operation of the Legislative Research Commission until I became involved in the litigation over sexual harassment and retaliation filed on behalf of three LRC employees in 2013.

The most significant revelation in that litigation is the mismanagement of this organization which performs some of the most essential functions of state government. LRC staffers draft laws, prepare the state budget and act as intermediaries between legislators and their constituents.

Overseen by the legislature's 16 leaders, the LRC is composed of partisan and non-partisan staffers. Partisan staffers are assigned to support elected legislators, both Democrats and Republicans. Non-partisan staff provide support without regard to political affiliation.

On Oct. 2, 2013, the leaders who oversee the LRC, voted to contract with the National Council of State Legislatures to study the operations and management of the nonpartisan staff.

Between November 2013 and April 2014, NCSL staff interviewed 115 LRC staff, legislators and partisan legislative staff, delivering a draft report in April 2014.

This report is an indictment of those responsible for the management and oversight of LRC, specifically former LRC director Robert Sherman, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers.

The 16-member panel hired Sherman as director in 1999. He served in that position until his abrupt retirement in September, 2013, followed by two days of shredding LRC documents with the assistance of his former staffers. Stumbo and Stivers serve as co-chairs of LRC. Sherman was supposed to report to them.

Sherman gave a partial deposition in April, 2015 that was never completed after LRC settled the lawsuits He gave some very troubling responses to questions about his management.

Sherman decided all issues pertaining to non-partisan staff, such as who is hired, fired or gets raises, where they are assigned and how many staffers are on the non-partisan end.

The interviews and staff survey results, according to the NCSL, "expose[d] a more troubling side of LRC operations and several critical vulnerabilities that we believe put future LRC success at risk." One LRC employee summed up the "system" thus: "There are no systems here, it's all arbitrary. . . ." Another: "There's no rhyme or reason to raises."

In the deposition, Sherman disagreed, while admitting he filled jobs based upon people he knew and did not post job openings "because it was unfair to make folks think that they had a chance to get the job when they didn't."

LRC staffers reported that raises and promotions were not based on merit. Sherman had no insight as to why they had that view. He conceded he was aware of "rumors of sexual relationships, not a lot them. . . ." Sherman was obviously uncomfortable about this line of questioning, asking to "go off" the record "for a little bit" because he was concerned about his testimony becoming "public" and being sued.

NCSL's conclusion on LRC's pay scheme: "Pay equity, and the perceived lack of it among LRC staff, is not just a transparency issue. There is evidence that years of inconsistent decision making conducted without any structure, plan, or objective performance criteria has created an environment where the link between pay and performance is difficult to discern."

Perhaps the most troubling issue in Sherman's directorship was his handling of compensatory time, awarded and paid for time when staffers work hours in excess of the norm.

NCSL found that "comp time award levels usually are not equal to the actual overtime hours worked by an employee but represent instead an assessment by the director of the relative overtime contribution of the employee's office."

Sherman admitted an employee who worked 65 hours could be awarded 75 hours of comp time. He also stated he did not have a problem with employees being paid for hours they did not work.

The state regulation on compensatory time is specific. "Only hours actually worked shall be used for computing. . .time and one-half (1½ ) compensatory time." Not only did Sherman give himself block awards, he also provided them to his paramour subordinate.

A key finding by the NCSL was that LRC "employees are talented, dedicated, and hard-working professionals who love working at the General Assembly and who, in many cases want to make a career out of legislative service."

After repeated efforts to thwart discovery of its operation, LRC elected to settle these two lawsuits to end efforts at further discovery which could and probably would have led to more embarrassing revelations about current and former elected officials.

The discovery that was produced disclosed a degree of incompetency, or possibly worse, which "put future LRC success at risk."

The employees of LRC deserve better.

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