Politics

The state will pay $400,000 to settle two sexual harassment lawsuits against lawmakers and the state agency that runs administrative operations in the state Capitol.

The payment is part of the settlement of two lawsuits filed in October 2013: one in which two Legislative Research Commission employees accused former Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, of inappropriately touching them and also accused former LRC Director Bobby Sherman of not doing enough to address sexual harassment of staffers in the state agency.

The allegations were made public in summer 2013 by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WFPL News.

Rep. Johnny Bell, a Democrat from Glasgow and newly selected House whip, was added to the lawsuit earlier this year when one of the plaintiffs alleged that Bell fired her from the whip’s office in retaliation for the lawsuit.

The other lawsuit was raised by a female staffer of Rep. Will Coursey, a Democrat from Symsonia. In that lawsuit, an LRC staff member alleged that she was demoted when she accused him of sexually harassing two other staffers.

The LRC is overseen by a committee of state legislative leaders. Demcratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s office and Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, did not return requests for comment on Thursday evening.

The allegations of inappropriate conduct in Kentucky’s state legislature led to increased scrutiny of the LRC’s policies.

Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, who represented the women, said he’s “not optimistic” that the settlement is going to change the culture at the state Capitol.

“We still have the same people,” Clay said.

“And until they get somebody in there who’s going to pay attention to the personnel management of LRC there’s going to be problems.”

The settlement, which was agreed upon a month ago, has not been officially signed or finalized in Franklin Circuit Court.

In December 2013 the legislature commissioned the National Council of State Legislatures to conduct a $42,000 performance audit of the LRC. A draft of the audit, released in January 2014 said little of sexual harassment but highlighted other workplace issues, like communication problems, pay inequity, unfair hiring practices and nebulous career paths for young employees.

The LRC is slated to have a new director on Oct. 1, tasked with reforming the state agency. Interim director Marcia Seiler has filled in since former director Bobby Sherman resigned from the office in the wake of the sexual harassment accusations.

Clay conducted a deposition of Sherman in April before the suit went into mediation. The deposition has remained sealed, though it contains information directly relating to the operation of the state agency, Clay said.

“Certainly the public has a right to know what was going on and how LRC was being managed or mismanaged,” Clay said.

In September 2013, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting conducted an investigation into the culture of Sherman’s LRC, finding that harassment had been an issue in the agency which had no rules governing personal relationships.

Kentucky Public Radio has filed an open records request with the LRC to obtain a copy of the deposition.

The settlement ends a drawn-out lawsuit that at one point included Stumbo, who was accused of having knowledge of sexual harassment in the Capitol and doing too little to resolve the situation.

The terms of the settlement also dismiss a counter-suit filed by Rep. Will Coursey against his accuser.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.