FRANKFORT — Members of the state House select committee investigating sexual harassment claims against a former lawmaker disagree about the methods and scope of the investigation.
Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a Lexington Republican and former inspector general for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, suggested that the committee “should issue a letter of invitation to be sent to all members of the LRC informing them of the committee’s purpose and function, inviting them to provide testimony to the committee” either publicly or in private.
He also suggested that a court reporter be hired to transcribe such testimony, and that the committee consider hiring an investigator to assist their counsel in the probe.
Benvenuti and committee chairman Jeff Donohue, a Louisville Democrat, appeared to disagree on whether the committee would limit its focus on information concerning John Arnold, who resigned from the House last month citing health problems, or if it should respond to new allegations brought by LRC staff against other lawmakers.
Donohue said that committee’s responsibility did not extend beyond charges concerning Arnold, and that it is to make recommendfations to the House about strengthening its programs regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, adding that the committee would not be looking into any claims against Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, who has been accused of retaliating against a female LRC employee after she complained to her supervisor about inappropriate behavior between Coursey and a female intern.
When asked if an LRC employee comes forward with information regarding Coursey, and not Arnold, Donohue said that that information would be “outside our realm.”
Benvenuti said that he believes the committee should consider all information, but agrees with Donohue that because the committee’s jurisdiction is limited to Arnold, they cannot investigate claims against other lawmakers. However, he added that if the committee learns of new allegations against other lawmakers, they will recommend them to the LRC for further investigation.
“I don’t think you can investigate [Arnold] and simply put it in a vacuum and say we’re not going to listen anything else,’ Bevenuti said.
“Somebody comes in and, as part of their testimony, they mention somebody [other than Arnold], then what do you do with that information?” he said. “What you would do with it is make a referral back [to the LRC.”
Marcia Seiler, who replaced longtime LRC executive director Bobby Sherman following his resignation last month, declined to comment on whether or not she supports Benvenuti’s idea of LRC staff testifying before the committee.
“I wasn’t at the meeting, so I didn’t hear the motion,” Seiler told WFPL in a phone interview. “I’ve only been in this office a week. I am working with staff and reviewing our process and our procedures.”
The committee is also studying the harassment policies of other state legislatures to include in its report to the House due this January during the 2014 regular session of the General Assembly.
The committee will select applicants for its general counsel from a pool of resumes in a private meeting Oct. 14, and will vote on a candidate — as well Benevenuti’s proposals — during its next meeting on Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. in room 131 of the Capitol Annex Building.
The five-member bipartisan committee did not vote on hiring outside counsel to advise it on how to proceed in its probe into claims that Arnold, D-Sturgis, sexually harassed two longtime female employees of the Legislative Research Commission.
The meeting largely concerned itself with procedural matters that included consulting another attorney, Leslie Patterson Vose, who was hired Wednesday by the LRC to represent the agency in a pair of civil suits brought by three female statehouse employees.
Vose, an attorney with the Lexington law firm of Landrum & Shouse, will be paid $125 per hour, Seiler said.
Donohue said that consulting with the LRC’s attorney would provide the committee with an outside perspective “in going forward.”
Benvenuti disagreed with that approach.
“With all due respect to the LRC’s counsel, I think it is our counsel whom would advise us as to our scope,” Benvenuti said. “I would fully expect LRC’s counsel would be looking at this, as they should, from the best interest of their client. We are not their client.”
He added that because the independent investigative committee operates separately from the LRC, then Vose should only offer her opinion to them and nothing more.
Donohue stressed that whatever Vose might tell the committee would just be “advice” and that they could take it or leave it.
“We’re still going to move forward and get counsel for ourselves,” Donohue said.
“Based on advice from counsel, we have cancelled the Programs Review and Investigations Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday. The LRC Sexual Harassment Policy which we were scheduled to review is the subject of pending litigation in Franklin Circuit Court, making this an inappropriate time to have this discussion.“We have the utmost faith that this matter is being handled appropriately by the courts and the Kentucky State Police, and that the [National Conference of Statue Legislature’s] pending audit of LRC policy will even further address the issue. The committee will re-visit this discussion at a later date. In the meantime, we will closely monitor the issue.”