After nearly two years, sexual harassment lawsuits brought against three Democratic state representatives, a state official and the agency that runs administrative service at the Capitol were officially dismissed last week.
The lawsuits were settled out of court in early summer, with the state agreeing to pay $400,000 to three women who say they were sexually harassed and retaliated against for taking action.
The episode emerged in the public eye when two of the women, Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, accused former Democratic Rep. John Arnold of inappropriately touching them and making lewd and vulgar comments. Both were employees of the Legislative Research Commission, a nonpartisan agency that provides the legislature with staff and research support.
A third woman, Nicole Cusic, sued Democratic Rep. Will Coursey for allegedly demoting her when she accused him of sexually harassing a staffer at the Capitol. She also sued Bobby Sherman, then director of the LRC, accusing him of covering up sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Arnold and Sherman would pay additional settlements to the women. The details of those settlements have not been revealed.
After the accusations surfaced, state 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. Two years after that speech, he told WFPL he believes lawmakers and the public should know when sexual harassment complaints are made in the legislature.
“We’re responsible for what happens under our watch, and yet we’re not privy to this information,” Riner said.
Sherman stepped down from his position shortly after the accusations. The LRC has had an interim director since then, but a new permanent director is slated to begin in October.
The new director will be tasked with reforming the state agency, which according to an audit conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures suffers from low morale. The audit detailed unclear hiring, advancement and pay policies, but said little of sexual harassment in the LRC.
Riner said auditors went out of their way to avoid the topic.
“The fact that that they didn’t interview all the people who had been sexually harassed I thought was very unusual,” Riner said. “Why would you make the effort not to have their input? How can you change the culture unless you hear from people that are the victims?”
Riner said the LRC needs to codify its personnel policies, including a sexual harassment policy, and hold administrators and lawmakers accountable.
“It’s always to the advantage of political power to be able to make up the rules as you go. And that’s not to the advantage of employees, though,” Riner said.
The new director is David Byerman, former secretary of the Nevada state Senate. He also served as the chief government liaison for Nevada and was the president of a public relations firm.