Politics

The state agency that can fine lawmakers for ethical violations is asking the legislature to strengthen its own ethics code, including an explicit ban on sexual harassment and discrimination.

The recommendation comes after four Republican members of the state House of Representatives were implicated in a sexual harassment scandal involving a former staffer last year.

John Schaaf, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, recommended that lawmakers adopt state and federal bans on workplace harassment.

“The important aspect of it is it creates a separate, optional, confidential process that is expedited and gives some certainty to the process,” Schaaf said to a legislative panel on Wednesday.

Former House Speaker Jeff Hoover and Reps. Brian Linder, Jim DeCesare and Michael Meredith secretly signed settlements with a former staffer, paying her $110,000 after she accused them of harassing her in several incidents.

Hoover admitted that he violated state ethics rules by exchanging sexually charged text messages with the woman, but during an ethics hearing earlier this year the commission dismissed a complaint against the three other representatives, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to show that the men broke ethics rules.

During the proceedings, defense attorneys revealed that Rep. Michael Meredith was accused of saying something “vulgar” to the staffer, while Reps. Jim DeCesare and Brian Linder allegedly exchanged inappropriate texts with her.

The ethics commission also recommended that the agency be permitted to dismiss complaints over the telephone if a complainant publicly comments about the allegations.

Schaaf said the recommendation would be used in cases where complaints were deemed to be politically motivated, especially in an election year.

Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville who levied the complaint against the Republican lawmakers, argued that the public has a right to know about allegations brought against lawmakers.

“If there is someone who is running for office and they made a mistake or they’ve done something unethical, the people should know about that before the person faces the people at the ballot box,” Wayne said.

Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said that the recommendation should allow the commission to dismiss complaints deemed to be frivolous even before they are publicly disclosed.

“Both parties have used the complaint process during the political season to try to score political points,” Thayer said. “That is not why this process is in place.”

Lawmakers would be required to disclose all out-of-state travel associated with their duties under the commission’s recommendations.

The commission also asked lawmakers to clarify whether it has jurisdiction over lawmakers once they leave office.

Schaaf said the commission should have the authority to hear complaints against legislators even if they leave office after the complaint is filed. But he said the complaint should have to be based on actions that occurred no more than a year before a lawmaker left office.

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