Local News
6:00 am
Thu September 5, 2013

Lawmakers Meet Behind Closed Doors to Discuss Sexual Harassment Allegations

Credit Jonathan Meador/WFPL News

Kentucky’s top lawmakers convened in Frankfort Wednesday in an effort to learn more about the handling of harassment claims within the Legislative Research Commission in the wake of sexual harassment allegations made against Rep. John A. Arnold by veteran LRC staffers.

Fifteen of the highest-ranking members of the Kentucky House and Senate questioned senior LRC staff about an internal investigation conducted by the nonpartisan agency concerning claims that Arnold, D-Sturgis, sexually harassed and assaulted LRC employees Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper, before entering a closed executive session that offered little in the way of specifics about that investigation or the agency’s response to harassment.

In an at-times contentious two-hour open meeting, LRC executive director Robert Sherman was grilled by lawmakers about his knowledge and handling of the allegations against Arnold. But due to concerns regarding what he dubbed the “overriding factor” of the confidentiality of the complainants, Sherman remained tight-lipped about the complaints or the internal probe.

He said that any public discussion of allegations that becomes too specific would have a “chilling effect” on others coming forward.

“They don’t necessarily want the next-door neighbor of the person they’re complaining against to be able to use open records to get it, to use it against them, to make fun of them,” Sherman said. “So this whole issue of confidentiality, if it’s not treated right, then what you do is you stifle complainants. They won’t come.”

Additionally, Sherman said that such discussion would be a “slippery slope” toward provoking litigation on the behalf of complainants, and that this should be grounds to close the meeting to the public.

(Related: Past coverage of the Arnold sexual harassment allegations from WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting)

Thomas Clay, the Louisville attorney representing Cooper and Costner, rejected Sherman’s argument, saying that his clients “are not interested in privacy at this point,” and that the LRC wanted to hide behind the constraints of open meetings laws.

“It’s all out there in the media anyway, so what is there to remain confidential?” Clay told reporters during a recess. “Why don’t they be forthcoming with the results of this investigation? What’s there to hide?”

“They’re trying to hide behind the cloak of confidentiality which I don’t think the law allows them to,” he added.

Clay said that he and his clients were privy to information that other sitting lawmakers were involved in sexual harassment issues, but declined to name those lawmakers.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, moved to close the meeting because of what he perceived as an insufficiency of the open meeting to allow LRC staff to delve into specifics. Hoover cited exemptions to the state open meetings law, KRS 61.810, regarding the threat of pending litigation by violating the complainants confidentiality.

Stumbo disagreed with Hoover’s interpretation of the law and that there were no media reports suggesting that and maintained that the meeting should remain open.

“”I believe the public has the right to know,” Stumbo said. “I believe that this committee has the right to know as much as you can share, given the allegations that have been made.”

Hoover pointed out that Stumbo wasn’t originally in favor of the meeting in the first place, prompting a heated exchange between the two that was swiftly quashed by Stivers.

After roughly two hours of questioning, the quorum of lawmakers voted 10-5 to move the meeting into an executive session, whereby the content of the discussion is exempt from state open meetings laws. The dissenting votes comprised the entirety of House leadership, including Stumbo and Reps. Rocky Adkins, Sannie Overly, Larry Clark and Tommy Thompson.

Stumbo recused himself from the executive session, calling it an “illegal” meeting.

Sherman offers timeline, discusses role of third-party investigator

Sherman told the panel of lawmakers that he became aware of a workplace harassment complaint made by two individuals against Arnold on Feb. 19, during the 2013 regular session of the General Assembly. Sherman said that he informed House leadership, including Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, about it the same day.

On Feb. 20, Sherman said interviews between Costner and Cooper were conducted by LRC staff, and that on Feb. 27 they interviewed Arnold about the complaints. The next day, Feb. 28, Sherman said they had “arrived at findings” regarding Arnold, and that his staff passed those findings onto the women.

But the women maintain they were never contacted by the LRC about these findings, and have yet to learn the contents of that file nor the outcome of Lewis’ investigation.

“I think there were misstatements by the LRC director, including the fact that these ladies were notified what the results of the investigation were. They were not. They still haven’t to this day been notified what the results are,” Clay told reporters during a recess. “To the extent that [Sherman] is up there saying that everything has gone the way it should have … I think he’s sorely mistaken.”

Sherman told the panel that he hired attorney Cheryl Lewis on June 11, 2013, to investigate the claims against Arnold because he believed “a fresh set of eyes” was needed on the issue. Lewis, an attorney from Hyden, Ky., specializing in employment law, was billed as a part-time LRC employee at an hourly rate of $125. Sherman said she is not eligible for benefits, works less than 100 hours per month and does not receive reimbursed for expenses.

Sherman waffled amid questioning by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, on whether Sherman consulted with House leadership about hiring Lewis, ultimately answering that he informed a staffer who works for a member of House leadership “on or about June 11” that he had done so.

Lewis told lawmakers that she was brought in “in an effort to provide a fresh set of eyes, to look at what LRC staff had done, and to indicate whether the job had been done properly or whether there were other things that needed to happen, and if possible to mediate or to facilitate a resolution to this issue,” she said.

Lewis declined to comment when asked how many hours she had been billed by the LRC. Roy Collins, LRC personnel director, said he did not know how many hours Lewis had been billed by the agency, and that that information should be sought via a formal records request.

Both women told WFPL that they were dissatisfied with Lewis’ efforts, and have decried Stumbo’s attempts to characterize them as such. While they have since withdrawn racial discrimination complaints with the Kentucky Council on Human Relations, their attorney Thomas Clay said that “all options are on the table” including litigation against the LRC and Arnold.

Clay intimated that he had received a call from an attorney representing Arnold, but would not outright confirm it.

Executive Session Takes no Action, Stivers Tight-Lipped

After deliberating for four hours, Senate President Stivers spoke with reporters, saying that the executive session did not take any action based on the contents of the discussion, but that he and his colleagues “got a lot of information that we did not know before today.”

But “I think it’s inappropriate for us to discuss the subject matter and content of the executive session,” he said.

He said that there have been complaints filed and threats of litigation concerning monetary damages, but declined to say more.

An audio recording of the session is now in the property of the LRC, which Stivers said would be sealed by court order and only unsealed via court action or consent of the LRC. Attorney Thomas Clay said that if he were to file complaints in court regarding the sexual harassment against Arnold and retaliation on the part of the LRC, he would seek to unseal that recording.

An LRC staffer told WFPL that the cost of the day’s session totaled $3,325.54 in taxpayer dollars due to the combined one-day salary of the 15 legislators present for the meeting. That figure does not include costs associated with additional staff potentially utilized by those lawmakers for the express purpose of the executive session.