Politics

The Kentucky House of Representatives has unanimously passed a bill that would make sexual harassment an offense under the ethics code for state lawmakers. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.

The legislature’s ethics code doesn’t currently prohibit sexual harassment, though lawmakers have been punished for harassing staffers under a rule that forbids misuse of their official positions.

The current system has been problematic, as attorneys for lawmakers accused of harassment and members of the Legislative Ethics Commission — which can punish lawmakers for ethics violations — have repeatedly questioned whether the agency has the authority to punish for harassment in the legislature.

Rep. Kim Moser, a Republican from Taylor Mill and sponsor of the bill, said the measure has been a work in progress for over a year.

“What this bill does, very simply, is creates a clear pathway for reporting any complaints of harassment, sexual harassment, or discrimination for a professional, expedited review,” Moser said.

The legislation comes after Rep. Jeff Hoover and three other Republican lawmakers were accused of harassment in a letter sent by a former staffer in October 2017.

The contents of the staffer’s allegations were not known until earlier this week when the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting showed that the woman had alleged that Hoover repeatedly groped her without her consent throughout her two-year employment.

The lawmakers and former chief of staff for House Republicans, Ginger Wills, signed an out-of-court settlement with the woman, paying her $110,000 in exchange for a confidentiality agreement and promise that she wouldn’t sue.

After the Courier Journal first reported on the existence of the settlement in November 2017, Hoover resigned from his position as speaker of the House.

A Democratic lawmaker filed an ethics complaint against the accused lawmakers, saying they had broken the ethics code by allegedly harassing the staffer and secretly settling her complaint.

The Legislative Ethics Commission ended up dismissing the ethics complaint against Reps. Michael Meredith, Jim DeCesare and Brian Linder, but settled the charges against Hoover, who admitted to violating the ethics code by exchanging inappropriate text messages with the woman.

He was fined $1,000 and had to publicly admit to the text messages, though the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting showed in a story published earlier this week that the commission knew about the woman’s claims that Hoover touched her inappropriately.

The new proposed ethics rules create a long list of behavior that could be considered sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual contact of any kind, unwelcome sexual communication and the display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace.

The bill also creates a new process for reporting harassment complaints. Legislators, lobbyists or legislative employees can report harassment claims to a tip line monitored by the Legislative Ethics Commission. The commission then has an expedited timeline to review the complaint.

The measure also allows the commission to dismiss the complaint if the person who reports it “publicly discloses or comments on the complaint.”

Rep. Kelly Flood, a Democrat from Lexington is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

“We put the best practices together into a bill that we believe will mature our entire system, our entire way of being together, with some options to make our workplace safer for all of us,” Flood said.

The measure passed out of the House with a vote of 99-0.

A similar bill passed out of the state House last year, but was never taken up in the Senate.

On Thursday, Senate President Robert Stivers said he wasn’t familiar with the bill and couldn’t weigh in on its chances in the Senate.

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