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When a Kentucky legislative staffer first threatened to file suit over alleged sexual harassment, she sent a letter that laid out the specifics of her claim: that then-House Speaker Jeff Hoover made sexual comments and repeatedly groped her without her consent.

The woman, called Jane Doe in some court documents, said in the October 2017 letter that she was living in fear due to alleged harassment by Hoover and three other lawmakers. She and her attorney offered to negotiate, confidentially. By the next week, Hoover, other lawmakers and a Republican staffer had secretly settled with Doe for $110,000.

Hoover’s attorneys have fought to keep the demand letter, a document that states a legal claim, out of the public record, and it has never been released. But the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Kentucky Public Radio obtained a copy of the document.

The letter shows that, from Doe’s first contact with Hoover, she alleged behavior that was more serious than exchanging sexually charged text messages the only part of the allegation that was widely known.

A KyCIR investigation found that the commission that looked into alleged ethics violations knew about Doe’s claims of unwanted touching, but didn’t publicly discuss them or seriously investigate the veracity of the claim.

Instead, the commission and its prosecutor heeded requests from Hoover’s lawyer to keep the letter, and its detailed allegations, out of the public record. It never called Doe to testify or subpoenaed the letter. None of the few witnesses it did summon said they knew anything about the allegations.

And the details didn’t emerge until last month, when KyCIR reported on Doe’s allegations as she described them during a sealed deposition in pending lawsuits. In that sworn testimony, she called Hoover’s behavior sexual assault.

Hoover, 59, was re-elected to his 12th term in the House last year. He has repeatedly denied that his interactions with Doe ever went beyond exchanging text messages. He has not responded to requests for comment.

In a brief interview with KyCIR, Hoover’s attorney, Leslie Vose, said she thought the ethics commission looked out for the public interest in its inquiry.

“I thought the commission’s investigative procedure was extremely thorough, meticulously thorough, and I think their determinations were reasonable,” she said.

KyCIR doesn’t name alleged victims of sexual assault or harassment without their consent. Doe declined to be interviewed for this story.

‘Living In Fear And Subordination’

Copies of flirtatious text messages between Doe and Hoover went public soon after the Courier Journal first reported the secret settlement in November 2017. But little else was known about the allegations.

Doe’s demand letter shows that, since the beginning of the legal battle, her allegations have been consistent: that she felt as though she couldn’t say no to Hoover, who she said made sexual advances and touched her without her consent.

“She was made to believe that she would be retaliated against and/or terminated if she did not give in to your every command,” Garry Adams, one of Doe’s attorneys at the time, said in the letter to Hoover. “She has been living in fear and subordination during the last two to three years in an effort to keep her job and not tarnish her career aspirations.”

In the letter, the staffer wrote a three-page timeline detailing specific examples of inappropriate behavior. The list of incidents started with the night of Gov. Matt Bevin’s 2015 inaugural ball, when she was 22. She said Hoover and another legislator commented on her breasts. Then Hoover hugged her from the side, she said, pressing her breasts together and looking down at them.

The incidents continued through the 2017 legislative session, when she alleged near-daily touching and frequent groping by Hoover occurred, according to the letter.

Details included in the letter track closely with sworn testimony Doe gave last October, in lawsuits filed by her former supervisors. In both the letter and her later testimony, she said Hoover touched her under the table during a 2016 dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings in Frankfort. She also recounted a time at the Capitol in 2016 where Hoover allegedly asked her to spread her legs so he could look up her dress during a meeting.

Doe said that Hoover regularly touched her in front of other people in the elevator and elsewhere in the Capitol, and pressed his body against hers or grabbed her behind.

“Speaker Hoover would have regular physical contact on the House floor with me,” she said.

Doe said that the behavior was so shocking that then-Rep. Jill York of Grayson complained to House Republican Communications Director Daisy Olivo.

“York approached [Olivo], saying the behavior was completely inappropriate and he needed to stop it right away,” Doe said in the demand letter.

York, a Republican from Grayson, has not returned requests for comment. Olivo declined comment.

The settlement that followed Doe’s letter indicated it was resolving complaints related to “harassment, assault/battery” and retaliation.

The demand letter also detailed Doe’s allegations against the three other legislators who joined in the secret settlement: that Rep. Michael Meredith, a Republican from Oakland, said in explicit terms that he wanted to ejaculate on Doe, and that then-Reps. Jim DeCesare and Brian Linder sent her inappropriate messages.

Neither DeCesare, a Republican from Bowling Green, nor Linder, a Republican from Dry Ridge, sought re-election. Meredith is currently the chair of the House Local Government Committee.

None of the men could be reached for comment.

The letter did not mention former Rep. Brad Montell, who, according to Doe’s sworn testimony in the civil suit, told her he would donate to a political candidate she worked for only if she “sat in his lap and signed the checks for him.”

Montell resigned from the Kentucky Department of Education in January. He was not a party to the sexual harassment settlement or investigated by the ethics commission.

Doe Questioned, But Her Allegations Remained Quiet

The only body that can discipline lawmakers in their official capacity, other than the legislature itself, is the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

The nine-member commission is a mix of lawyers, former judges, legislators, lobbyists and longtime government workers. It has subpoena power and hires an “enforcement counsel,” who functions as prosecutor, for investigations.

The commission holds public hearings, hears evidence and votes on a verdict. It can enact fines up to $2,000 per offense and recommend expelling a legislator.

In November 2017, the ethics commission began an investigation into the four legislators who settled with Doe. It was prompted by then-Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat who filed an ethics complaint.

The legislature’s current ethics code doesn’t explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, but lawmakers instead have been punished under a rule that forbids misuse of their official positions.

The commission’s prosecutor was Mike Malone, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Fayette County. Malone declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss details of the case since several civil lawsuits are still ongoing.

(Olivo and another former House staffer have filed civil suits alleging they were retaliated against for reporting harassment, and Hoover has filed suit against Doe, claiming she violated the confidentiality clause in her settlement agreement.)

In an email, Malone said that it was generally up to him to decide whom to interview, what documents to obtain and whether there was a need to obtain sworn testimony from anyone.

Malone spoke with Doe twice, at length, in the months after Wayne’s ethics complaint was filed, according to John Phillips, another of Doe’s attorneys at the time.

Malone’s questioning was very thorough, Phillips told KyCIR in an email.

“She answered his questions honestly,” he said. “After more than a couple hours of questioning, it was my impression that he had a good understanding of the factual circumstances surrounding all of [Doe’s] allegations.”

But the conversations were not recorded. Doe wasn’t subpoenaed, or placed under oath. Phillips said Doe preferred not to testify once the public hearings began, but that she was prepared to.

The contents of Malone’s interviews with Doe were never publicly revealed. The Legislative Ethics Commission declined a request from KyCIR to release Malone’s notes, saying they were not public records.

In March, when Malone sent a pre-hearing memo to the commissioners, he didn’t mention the interviews with Doe or name any other people he’d interviewed. But he told the commission to expect testimony from Doe; his investigator, James Curless; and “several of Doe’s co-employees.”

Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission records

Pre-hearing memo filed by Mike Malone before the April 2018 ethics hearing

Malone’s memo, which the Legislative Ethics Commission provided to KyCIR, did not include details of his investigative findings.

He said he wouldn’t be providing his findings until the adjudicatory hearing began.

In March 2018, with the hearing approaching, Hoover’s former chief of staff gave a videotaped deposition.

Ginger Wills was subpoenaed by Vose, Hoover’s attorney, and said she would be out of town during the hearing scheduled the next month.

Wills had signed the settlement agreement in the previous October, along with Hoover and other lawmakers. She had resigned as Hoover’s chief of staff in January.

During her testimony, she denied knowing anything about any sexual harassment or other misconduct asserted by Doe.

“I’m insulted that honestly that someone would think I wouldn’t address that,” Wills said. “As a female, and a mother of a daughter, I would have absolutely addressed it.”

Wills said she knew Doe before they worked together at the House, and she hoped Doe would’ve been comfortable enough to come to her if she were being harassed.

During more than two hours of questioning, primarily from Vose, Wills spoke more in-depth on what kind of employee Wills found Doe to be. The secret settlement agreement, and Wills’ role in it, didn’t come up.

Wills read from her employee logs what she recorded about Doe’s conduct. KyCIR obtained the logs through a public records request, and the documents never mentioned anything about the harassment allegation or the settlement.

Wills did recount an anecdote that she heard Doe was displaying inappropriate behavior at a bar.

Records show that Vose planned to introduce those logs, and unspecified photos from Doe’s Facebook page, as evidence in the ethics hearing. She also intended to call York, the legislator Doe said witnessed Hoover’s behavior, to testify.

Malone questioned Wills for about half an hour during her deposition. His focus was on personnel policies, and on Wills’s authority within the House Republican caucus.

Malone asked Wills when she first learned about allegations of an improper relationship between Doe and Hoover.

Wills said she knew only about rumors, and that another staffer had told her that Doe was “trouble.”

Demand Letter Reviewed, But Not Obtained

During the first public hearing in April, the ethics commission dropped charges against three of the legislators Doe had accused of making sexual comments or sending messages she perceived as inappropriate.

But the ethics commission proceeded with its case against Hoover.

The commission called two witnesses: Wayne, the former legislator, testified about the complaint he filed based on media reports about the secret settlement and alleged inappropriate conduct. He said he didn’t know anything firsthand.

David Byerman, then the executive director of the Legislative Research Commission, also testified. He said he didn’t know any details about Doe’s allegations.

It was more than four months after the investigation began, and the commission had not yet discussed the merits of the case or the nature of the allegations in a public meeting. They contemplated whether the commission ought to subpoena a copy of the demand letter from Doe.

Malone told commission members he had not yet seen the demand letter. But, he said, he didn’t think he necessarily needed to.

“I really have no good reason to suspect that there’s anything in this letter that is something I need to see,” Malone said.

In a memo she submitted before the hearing, Vose said she opposed disclosing the “one-sided, highly inflammatory” letter, partly because eventually it would become a public record if the commission obtained it.

Legislative Ethics Commission records

Pre-hearing memo submitted by Leslie Vose, attorney representing three legislators in a 2018 ethics hearing.

“To compel its production or inspection which will then place it in the public record would be unduly prejudicial,” Vose said.

The commission voted in favor of issuing a subpoena for the letter, according to meeting minutes. But it didn’t actually do so.

Malone said he expected Hoover’s lawyer to go to court to stop the subpoena. The commission chair, Anthony Wilhoit, instead asked Malone and Vose to confer and determine if Malone could review the demand letter privately.

Vose agreed to let Malone see the letter as long as he didn’t disclose its contents. The following week, when the commission met again, Malone recommended against issuing a subpoena for the letter because he didn’t think it would be admissible under Kentucky’s rules of evidence.

“Since you all are only supposed to see admissible evidence, if you did see it, it might be grounds for reversal of whatever decision you’ve reached in the case,” Malone told the commission.

Malone said there was nothing in the letter the members didn’t already know.

He told the commission he wanted to try and settle the complaint with Hoover.

He said that there was no doubt Hoover exchanged text messages with Doe. He made no mention of any other allegedly inappropriate conduct by Hoover.

After Malone negotiated privately with Vose on April 10, the commission approved the punishment: a public reprimand and a $1,000 fine. Hoover had already resigned as speaker two months earlier, but kept his seat.

Doe was in the audience during the second hearing. The commission members never heard from her or saw her demand letter before they voted to resolve the cases against the four legislators.

Wilhoit, the commission chairman and a retired chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, asked Malone whether Doe was agreeable to the settlement.

“Is she going to be happy? I don’t think [Doe] has anything to be happy about in this matter, frankly, as you would expect,” Malone said. “My understanding is she’s agreeable.”

Pat Freibert, a former state representative and the only woman on the commission at the time, said she was reluctant because she wanted to publicly air out the evidence first. She was the only commission member to vote against settling the case with Hoover.

After the vote, Hoover delivered his public apology, during which he said that he considered all of the ethics commission members to be his friends.

“I regret that you all are in this position,” Hoover said.

Freibert noted this would be her only chance to ask questions of Hoover, and so she asked one: Did Doe ever rebuff his advances? He said no.

“As consensual as it was,” Hoover said, “it was still inappropriate for me, and I accept that responsibility.”

Hoover was not under oath. But another commissioner asked to add Hoover’s statement to the official findings. Malone pointed out that the commission was only hearing Hoover’s side of the story.

“That’s just his side of it, and that’s fine…” Malone started several sentences, and then trailed off.

“There is another viewpoint. We’re not going there,” Malone said. “I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.”

The only specifics of Doe’s allegations that made it into the ethics hearing records released to KyCIR came from Vose, Hoover’s lawyer.

Vose briefly outlined Doe’s claims against Hoover in her pre-hearing memo.

“Rep. Hoover denies that there was any touching, lifting of garments, etc., by him, as [Doe] currently alleges,” Vose wrote. “Further, Rep. Hoover denies that any of the interaction between them was ‘unwelcome.’”

Months Later, Questions Remain

During an interview with KyCIR earlier this month, Wilhoit said that the commission’s members knew “everything Mike (Malone) knew” about Doe’s allegations.

But he waffled on what exactly those allegations were. He said he was unaware that Doe had accused Hoover of groping her, even though that accusation was in Doe’s demand letter.

Wilhoit said he wasn’t sure that Malone ever heard about that allegation from Doe.

“Let’s assume that we did know about, that he had groped her on an occasion,” Wilhoit said. “What difference would that make?”

Even if the commission had been aware of Doe’s full allegations, Wilhoit said, Hoover’s punishment wouldn’t have been very different.

The commission ultimately settled the case to keep it from dragging on, he said, and commissioners wanted to spare Doe the embarrassment of testifying.

“We don’t exist just to make news. We exist to take care of ethics problems,” Wilhoit told KyCIR. “The guy was punished. He was punished pretty darn heavily.”

Tony Goetz, a commission member who voted in favor of the settlement, said he thought that the commission did an adequate job evaluating Doe’s claims. Goetz said he concluded there was “not an issue there.”

“It was a ‘he-said, she-said’ kind of thing,” Goetz said.

Goetz said he would have liked to hear more testimony in the case, but he thought at the time that the commission should move on.

“I think at that point in time we kind of were kicking a dead horse,” Goetz said.

Freibert told KyCIR in an interview last week that she still disagreed with the resolution of the case.

“When I don’t hear both from the accuser and the accused, which we did not do, then I feel like you have not informed your sense of justice,” Freibert said.

According to Freibert, Malone said commissioners would be able to question Hoover and Doe before the conclusion of the complaint.

“Of course, we had her texts,” Freibert said. “And the texts invited many questions.”

Last month, current House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican from Prospect, had a question of his own.

KyCIR had just published details from Doe’s depositions in two civil suits, where she testified to behavior from Hoover that she called sexual assault.

Osborne sent a letter to the ethics commission, asking if it had the information about Doe’s allegations before it closed the case.

When John Schaaf, the executive director of the ethics commission, responded, he said the ethics commission could not re-litigate a claim. He reiterated that Doe was “agreeable” to the settlement the commission reached with Hoover.

If the commission had any evidence of any criminal activity, Schaaf said, it would have referred it to the attorney general’s office.

“The commission found no such evidence,” he said.

Contact R.G. Dunlop at (502) 814-6533 or rdunlop@kycir.org. Contact Ryland Barton at (502) 814-6514 or rbarton@kentuckypublicradio.org.

R.G. Dunlop is an investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms.
Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.