Politics
11:17 am
Tue October 1, 2013

In Lawsuits, Kentucky Statehouse Employees Claim Sexual Harassment, Retaliation

Attorneys filing lawsuit with clients Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner.
Credit Jonathan Meador/WFPL News

FRANKFORT — In the latest salvo in the sexual misconduct allegations in the Kentucky General Assembly, three Statehouse staffers filed lawsuits Tuesday against two state legislators, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation.

The lawsuits also name the Legislative Research Commission as a defendant. The lawsuit filed against former state Rep. John A. Arnold Jr. also names House Speaker Greg Stumbo, claiming he didn't prioritize an investigation into sexual harassment claims.

In her suit, Nicole Cusic alleges that she was retaliated against after she complained that state Rep. Will Coursey was attempting to forge inappropriate relationships with female Statehouse interns. Cusic was an LRC employee assigned as a secretary for Coursey, a Democrat from Symsonia.

Cusic also alleges that former LRC executive director Bobby Sherman retaliated against her. Her suit claims Sherman was aware of Cusic’s complaint against Coursey, and that the two men “conspired and retaliated against” her.

The second suit accuses Arnold, a Sturgis Democrat, of sexually harassing two longtime LRC employees, Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper. It also alleges that Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, “was otherwise aware of Arnold’s sexually harassing and discriminatory conduct,” but that the speaker and the LRC “failed to take any appropriate corrective actions.”

Costner and Cooper's suit claims that Arnold committed assault and battery. Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, who is representing the three women, said that the one-year statute of limitations for criminal charges has likely expired.

Clay said that his clients are seeking a jury trial with which to recover damages for embarrassment, humiliation, mental anguish and retaliation, as well as attorney’s fees.

“We’re hoping to send a message to whoever engages in this kind of misconduct that it won’t be tolerated, and that the women who work for the LRC are entitled to come to work in a harassment-free environment and they don’t have to worry about a legislator or any other person in that environment taking shots at them sexually," Clay said.

Stumbo Named in Suit

Kentucky State Capitol
Credit Wikipedia Commons

Stumbo was named because “he had some degree of responsibility to oversee LRC employment," Clay said.

In a statement, Stumbo said his office's policy is to not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for the speaker’s office offered no further comment.

Stumbo authorized the hiring of a third-party attorney who was contracted as a part-time LRC employee by Sherman in order to investigate the claims against Arnold. The results of that completed investigation have yet to be released by the LRC—but it has drawn the ire of Cooper and Costner, who allege that Arnold repeatedly ignored recommended corrective actions given by high-level LRC staff.

Arnold resigned last month citing health concerns and has denied allegations brought by Costner and Cooper in complaints filed with the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. In those complains, the women allege Arnold sexually harassed and assaulted them for years. In his resignation letter, Arnold wrote that he didn't believe he's guilty of sexual harassment.

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

Arnold’s attorney, Steve Downey, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.

Coursey likewise has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, Mark Edwards, told Kentucky Public Radio that Coursey “never had an inappropriate relationship with anybody.”

On Tuesday, Edwards said Cusic's intention to seek protection under whistleblower status may have elapsed its statute of limitations, and he took issue with her complaint's mentioning of Coursey's party affiliation.

"It smells very strongly of a Republican smear campaign, and I don't say that lightly; I am a registered Republican," Edwards said. "We have interviewed numerous people who have indicated Nicole was happy with her transfer, so why did she wait a year and a half to say something?"

Cusic declined to comment when asked by reporters what inappropriate behavior she observed Coursey committing, and did not comment when asked whether Coursey had ever sexually harassed her. Clay claims that the decision to reassign Cusic after she expressed concerns about Coursey's alleged behavior originated in Stumbo's office, but the speaker is not named in her lawsuit.

LRC Questions

Sherman resigned from his position last month following the conclusion of an internal investigation of the allegations against Arnold. Kentucky State Police has launched an investigation into Sherman's shredding of LRC documents days after his resignation is under investigation by the Kentucky State Police.

Costner and Cooper also allege in their suit that they have not been paid for hours they have worked—including overtime—and that the state breached its contract with the women by not paying them and violated the Kentucky Wages and Hours Act.

Their suit accuses the state “and/or Stumbo” with violating the provisions of this law, which protects employee overtime pay. The complaint did not list the number of hours for which they claim they were not paid.

Speaking to reporters outside the Franklin County Clerk’s office, Cooper and Costner said an anonymous letter has circulated around their offices for the last week claiming they are poor employees and often miss work.

They told reporters that if they missed any excessive amounts of work, it was due to stress as a result of their work environment. They did not provide a copy of the letter to WFPL.

The LRC is a nonpartisan state agency that gives the Kentucky General Assembly logistical support. Clay said the alleged harassment violates Kentucky’s implementation of the Federal Civil Rights Act and the state’s so-called “whistleblower” law, and any potential immunity afforded the LRC would be waived.

“They’re an employer, and they’re also a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said.

Both complaints have been assigned to Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate. The defendants will have now 20 days to enter a plea and file a motion after being served with the complaints, after which Clay said he will initiate the discovery process in order “to find out something more about the culture [of harassment] in the legislature.”

(Related: In Kentucky Legislature, Lax Rules Govern Workplace Relationships Despite Long History of Scandal)

Other Issues?

Clay has said he received “a flood of calls” from current and former LRC employees alleging more inappropriate behavior by lawmakers in Frankfort, including sexual harassment “by a wide range of legislators.”

“They’ve named names, and the conduct is, frankly, shocking," Clay said. “Now, whether that rises to the level of a lawsuit depends on whether these people want to pursue their claims in court or not.”

Cooper said that “there was a lot of celebrating” among rank-and-file LRC staff following Sherman’s resignation. She and Costner expressed sadness that attempts to change the culture in Frankfort were ignored in 2007, when an anonymous letter was circulated among the legislature alleging that Sherman unfairly protected a subordinate with whom he was having an affair.

“We’re just kind of sad that it’s gone this far and it’s taken this long to change the culture at the Capitol,” Costner said. “We’re disappointed that we have to basically file a lawsuit to get justice not only for us, but for all employees of the LRC.”

Costner/Cooper complaint:

Cusic complaint: