The special state House committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against John Arnold may be limited in the sanctions it can levy, but the panel met for the first time Tuesday and considered its options.
“We still have a responsibility as a committee to make sure we take in all the information and make sure we move forward and do the correct thing” despite Arnold’s resignation, said Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville, selected as committee chairman by a 3-2 vote split along party lines.
But that means the punitive powers afforded to the committee will be limited, as they cannot technically censure or expel Arnold now that he is no longer a member of the House.
“We’ve got a daunting task ahead of us,” Donohue said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity, and to make sure we make the right decision as we move forward. It’s just one of those situations that arise periodically, and we have a responsibility to make sure we do things correctly and set a precedent for the future.”
Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, resigned last Friday in a letter to Gov. Steve Beshear, and in the process limited the actions available to the special committee on the grounds that they cannot censure nor expel an non-sitting member of the House.
He has been named in three complaints filed with three state ethics commission that allege he sexually harassed and assaulted three female employees of the Legislative Research Commission—a nonpartisan state agency that provides legislators with staff and logistical support—over a period of years.
The five-member committee was created by a “petition of censure or expulsion” filed with House Clerk Jean Burgin on Aug. 29 by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who said he filed it after Arnold failed to resign a week after the allegations were made public.
It will have the power to collect evidence and to subpoena witnesses, including Arnold, but it is unclear whether that testimony will be required to be given under legal oath.
Committee members spent the majority of the hour-long meeting discussing the hiring of outside counsel to advise them in their investigation.
Republican Rep. Robert Benvenuti, an attorney and former inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, stressed the importance of ensuring the privacy of witnesses and complainants, and suggested they interview a pool of applicants to serve as the committee’s attorney to advise them in such matters.
“I think it’s critical that we got off on good legal standing and have a clear understanding of our jurisdiction,” Benvenuti said.
When asked how much outside counsel would be paid, a spokesman for Stumbo’s office said that the matter is for the committee to discuss.
Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, suggested that the committee’s final report, to be presented in January to the 2014 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly, should include guidelines on preventing sexual harassment within the legislature.
“I believe that we have a real public trust issue,” Adams said. “And I believe that a report to recommend appropriateness of House members, how they conduct themselves, and how we live up to the public trust is an important piece to the puzzle that we’re all fitting together here.”
“I believe that it is important how we conduct ourselves, how we treat women in the workplace, do we have a safe work environment?” she said. “All of those issues are very important, and I think that it is incumbent upon us to start to draw some conclusions.”
So far, the committee is operating under state open meetings laws, but that could potentially change per the recommendation of independent counsel in the event they discuss “confidential” documents during their proceedings.
Before the committee began its deliberations, Stumbo formally addressed the members.
“I don’t envy you in your task,” Stumbo said. “I know all of you are aware of the seriousness of the situation, that the integrity of the body is protected by the body itself. And to me, that’s the most important thing, that we make people understand that we’re not going to turn our heads and look the other way from matters like this.”
Stumbo’s general counsel, Pierce Whites, acknowledged that due to the unique nature of a committee attempting to investigate and possibly reprimand a legislator who has since resigned, there is little available legal precedent to go on.
“There are a few cases out there,” Whites said. Although he could not recall them specifically, he said that he would be researching them and will pass his findings along to the committee.
According to comments made by Stumbo, he spoke with Arnold about the allegations on Aug. 22 and informed Arnold that he would give him a week to consider resigning. A week later, Arnold had not resigned, prompting Stumbo to file his petition.
Stumbo said that Arnold had been served with notice of the petition.
Committee member Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, wondered if the petition of censure and expulsion no longer applied now that Arnold has resigned.
Stumbo replied that, at the very least, the committee will conduct its investigation and present its findings to the General Assembly. If punitive measures are required, Stumbo said, then the committee could recommend that the House vote to fine Arnold, arguing that according to Section 39 of the Kentucky Constitution, Arnold could be held accountable for his conduct while in office even though he is technically no longer a member of that legislative body.
Simpson suggested that the amount of the hypothetical fine should equal the costs associated with their investigation to offset its financial burden to taxpayers.
The cost of today’s meeting was $941 across the five legislators’ salaries, according to the LRC. The committee will next meet on Oct. 9 to review applicants for their counsel and to discuss the scope of their investigation.