FRANKFORT — A special state House committee tasked with investigating sexual harassment claims against a former lawmaker has moved to hire legal counsel.
The five-member panel voted unanimously to hire Patrick Hughes, a northern Kentucky attorney with the law firm Dressman Benzinger LaVelle, to advise it as it probes claims that former state Rep. John Arnold sexually harassed and assaulted female state employees.
But the committee did little else in its third meeting, deferring movement on a suggestion made last week by committee member Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, to send a letter to the staff of the Legislative Research Commission seeking information about instances of sexual harassment. Committee chair Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville, said the committee will vote on that and other measures during the next meeting.
Hughes served as a former deputy chief to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway from 2011 to 2012.
The committee selected Hughes from a pool of applicants compiled by panel members. Donohue did not not specify how much Hughes will be paid, and added that the committee will decide on a rate in the future.
Donohue also said he received a letter from the Legislative Research Commission that asked the committee to suspend its operations in light of a civil lawsuit filed in Franklin Circuit Court against Arnold. Donohue said he declined to do so, and that the committee would move forward.
Responding to criticism that the committee has done little in its three meetings and if it is on schedule to provide a final report to the Kentucky General Assembly in January, Donohue cited other investigations into Arnold’s actions as reasons to take necessary legal precautions.
“We have to have counsel,” Donohue said. “We have to make sure we move forward correctly, you know, with civil lawsuits and things that are going on.”
In comments to her fellow committee members, Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, said that she wasn’t sure if the committee would be able to accomplish much of anything, and added that attorneys she spoke with have expressed similar pessimism.
“I did ask several attorneys that I know and that I really didn’t know in seeking out a name,” Smart said. “And they said they would not do it because all they come down here and tell us is that we couldn’t do anything, and they didn’t think the general public wants us to use the taxpayers’ money.”
“I’ve come to Frankfort three times,” Smart added, “and all we’ve done is talk. I don’t want to waste time and money.”
Benvenuti said that he and fellow Republican Rep. Julie Raque Adams, of Louisville, were hesitant to recommend attorneys because the applicants believed they would not be voted on by the Democratic members of the committee.
Benvenuti rebuffed Smart’s assertion, saying he’s heard the opposite from his constituents.
“What I hear from constituents, quite frankly, is ‘we expect you all to go over there, and to do good work, and to investigate what you’ve been asked to investigate, and to ensure that there’s not future misconduct in the House of a similar nature,” Benvenuti said. “So I’ve not heard from one … citizen of the Commonwealth that they are concerned that this committee is a waste of time or taxpayer money.”
But when asked if partisanship is playing a factor in the possible fracturing of the body, Benvenuti, Smart and Donohue all said no.
“I enjoy the enthusiasm of the committee,” Donohue said. “But I know we have an excellent group of folks up here, and we’ve got to stay focused on what the true issue is that has been given to us.”
The clock is ticking, however. The committee is slated to provide a report of their investigation to the General Assembly, which meets in January 2014. Benvenuti said that if they need extra time, then they may ask for it and present their findings after the session has already started.
The committee next meet on Oct. 23.