Kentucky General Assembly Still Reeling Two Months After Sexual Harassment Allegations Surface
It’s been two months since allegations of sexual harassment against then-state Rep. John Arnold brought new attention to the issue of abuse and mistreatment of staffers in Frankfort.
Since then, the Legislative Ethics Commission has found the claims have merit, and Arnold will essentially go on trial before the panel later this year.
That’s just latest in a series of steps taken to address growing concerns about discrimination in state government. While lawmakers have been busy responding to the fallout from the accusations, resolution for the related issues that have arisen will still take weeks, months or more.
Arnold, until recently a Democratic representative from Sturgis, will go on trial in December before the state's highest ethics panel. If found guilty, he could be reprimanded and possibly fined.
A chairman of a committee in which I had a bill in told me that if I performed a sexual act I could have my bill heard: Rep. Joni Jenkins
Related: Past coverage of the John Arnold allegations from WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
In Frankfort, some leaders are focused on making sure a situation like this doesn’t happen again. A handful of lawmakers have pledged to change what they call Frankfort’s “good ol’ boy” culture of self-interest and secrecy—where issues like sexual harassment and employee discrimination often get swept under the proverbial rug.
Louisville Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins was among the first state lawmakers suggest a legislative solution. She says she’s experienced the Frankfort culture firsthand.
“A chairman of a committee in which I had a bill in told me that if I performed a sexual act I could have my bill heard," she says.
Jenkins plans to introduce a measure in next year’s legislative session that would make harassment training mandatory for state lawmakers.
Rep. Sannie Overly, a Democrat from Lexington, has recently said she will file a bill to overhaul the LRC’s sexual harassment policies and procedures for promotion.
Those policies have attracted scrutiny in the wake of allegations that LRC executive director Bobby Sherman was accused of advancing the career of a subordinate with whom he was allegedly having an affair. Sherman retired last month, and is under investigation by the Kentucky State Police for shredding work-related documents following his resignation.
Related: In Kentucky Legislature, Lax Rules Govern Workplace Relationships Despite Long History of Scandal
Kentucky State Police haven’t released a timeline for their investigation. And in the meantime, lawmakers have asked National Conference of State Legislatures to audit the LRC.
The conference has sent a team to Frankfort, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo says it too will take some time because of the comprehensive nature of the audit, it too will take some time.
“A performance audit by its very nature takes time because it involves interviews with, as you’ve heard they did in South Dakota, members, probably with employees, suggestions from folks, analyzing the data that’s collected and putting it in some report-type scenario to be presented," says Stumbo, who calls it a "solid plan."
Yet the special committee formed to look into the Arnold case has little to show for it since it was created over a month ago. The panel is supposed to present its findings in January, but committee member Rita Smart, a Democratic representative from Richmond, admits the process has been slow so far.
“I’ve come to Frankfort three times, and all we’ve done is talk," Smart said. "I don’t want to waste time and money.”
That committee could also suggest additional fines. Any further state actions against Arnold are limited, since the lawmaker has resigned.
It’s too early to tell what the outcomes of all these actions might be. Proposed legislation will have to wait until the next session of the General Assembly, which isn’t for another two and a half months, and juries have yet to be selected for the lawsuits related to the matter.
Perhaps the first major change we’ll see since the accusations will come on Dec. 10. That’s when the governor has scheduled a special election to choose Arnold’s replacement.