A Democratic state lawmaker says some of his colleagues told him to keep quiet allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a fellow legislator to protect the party’s majority in upcoming elections
After WFPL News reported the accusations against state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, early Wednesday, Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, took to the House floor to speak out against what he described as a culture of intimidation and sexism in the legislature.
In separate ethics complaints filed last week, two longtime Frankfort staffers, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, outline a pattern of alleged harassment by Arnold dating back to 2010.
According to both women, they brought these issues to the attention of the Legislative Research Commission and top House Democratic leaders.
In a statement to ethics officials, Cooper alleges that on Feb. 14 Arnold walked up behind her and slapped her buttocks. She said she told House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins and his chief of staff about the incident, but Arnold continued visiting her office and attempted to hug Cooper, the complaint said.
Costner’s statement alleges that Arnold grabbed her underwear in March 2010, but that House Majority Whip Rep. John Will Stacy told her “(Arnold) was harmless.”
Riner said a third woman is coming forward and that protecting staffers, who have little job security, matters more to him than who controls the state House.
“You cannot put this off until the next election,” he said. “You cannot put this off until tomorrow. There are some things that are more important than which party gets in power. And one of those things is how we treat people that we have power over.”
The Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the House as Republicans have gained seats over the past two cycles.
Arnold is a retired chiropractor. He has represented the 7th District in Western Kentucky since 1995, but last year Arnold won re-election by just five votes over Republican Tim Kline.
Asked about the allegations facing Arnold, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he had heard rumors of the allegations but was never made aware of them directly.
“I don’t have any direct knowledge, but I have no tolerance and I probably speak for every member of this chamber, we have no tolerance of harassment of any kind,” he said. “But, I don’t know the details about the ethics complaint.”
But Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Steve Roberstson said House Democratic leaders who are named in the complaint need to explain further what efforts they took to help the staffers.
“If this issue was actually known by members of House Democrat leadership and they’ve done nothing that’s almost as big a problem as what John Arnold did. Maybe bigger,” Robertson said. “Because if people cannot expect to go into the workplace and work in a safe environment, and free from sexual harassment and assault in the state Capitol then we have a very big problem.”
The state GOP is now questioning whether Arnold’s alleged harassment was being covered up by House Democrats.
Among Costner’s accusations in the complaint are explicit verbal altercations with Arnold in the presence of a current House Democratic leader. She said on Jan. 10 that Arnold called her an “asshole” in front of Democratic state Rep. Tommy Thompson after Costner reported Arnold smoking in House chambers.
“A lot of you guys are kind of giggling and you think that this is over the top,” Riner said on the House floor Wednesday. “Well, if it made your blood pressure go through the roof maybe you wouldn’t think that. If you knew that it had physical implications. This is not a laughing matter.”
Representatives Adkins, Stacy Thompson did not return a request for comment.
Kentucky Public Radio’s Stu Johnson contributed to this report
In a statement provided to WFPL, Rep. Adkins, whose staff includes Cooper, said the following:
“When I was notified of this incident I met with LRC Executive Director Bobby Sherman to inform him of these allegations to ensure the protection of LRC employees.”