Politics

A special committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against House Speaker Jeff Hoover met for the first time Friday.

The panel was formed after a group of eight Republican lawmakers filed a formal complaint against Hoover seeking his expulsion from the legislature.

The group says Hoover “irreparably damaged” the reputation of the state House of Representatives by allegedly sexually harassing a staffer and signing a confidential settlement agreement to cover it up.

Rep. Jerry Miller, a Republican from Louisville and chair of the special committee, said the panel will initially meet behind closed doors to determine if the complaint is worthy of an investigation.

“We will make that evaluation likely in closed session,” Miller said. “Then if we do return a finding that we do need to do an investigation, then those meetings will be public.”

The committee is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans in addition to Miller, who won’t vote unless he is needed to break a tie.

Courier Journal first reported that a former House Republican staffer levied a sexual harassment complaint against Hoover, his chief of staff and three other GOP lawmakers.

In November, Hoover admitted to exchanging sexually-charged text messages with the woman, but denied sexually harassing her.

Another House staffer is suing Hoover and House GOP chief of staff Ginger Wills for alleged retaliation and creating a hostile work environment.

The sexual harassment scandal and alleged retaliation is also being investigated by the Legislative Ethics Commission and the FBI.

Democrats on the committee have protested, saying they haven’t agreed to hold the meetings in private.

“The Democratic members on the Special committee have not agreed to conduct any closed or private meetings and are disappointed if this is the direction the Republicans want to take,” said Rep. Sannie Overly, a Democrat from Paris and member of the panel.

“No rules of procedure have been adopted, and we believe strongly that everything should be done in public. Given the seriousness of the charges, this process must be as open and transparent as possible.”

Louisville Republican Rep. Phil Moffett, one of the lawmakers who filed the complaint, said that all of the meetings should be as “public as possible.”

“I understand their concerns, but this is something that the people ought to be able to see,” Moffett said. “They ought to understand that what we do and how we do it is open to the public and just as transparent as possible.”

Hoover initially said he would resign his leadership position, but on the first day of this year’s legislative session announced he was only temporarily stepping aside amid the investigations.

In the meantime, Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne is presiding over the House and will have authority to bestow the investigative committee with the power to subpoena records and testimony.

Rep. Miller said it was possible the committee would subpoena Hoover along with the demand letter and settlement agreement, though he said a legal challenge would be “likely.”

Ultimately, the committee will be working towards a recommendation on how the full House should respond to the complaint levied against Hoover, Miller said.

“We do a report, we will bring a report to the house, but this body has no ability to censure or expel anyone,” Miller said. “It makes recommendations to the full body and the full body makes the decision.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.