An ex-state employee is suing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, claiming she was fired due to her ties to a group that supported teacher sickouts that shut down school districts to protest GOP-backed legislation.
The federal suit filed Wednesday alleges Charissa "Chris" Cooke's First Amendment rights were violated.
"Cooke's termination appears to be part of the defendants' efforts to punish and intimidate individuals who oppose their policy positions," Cooke's suit says. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as reinstatement to her job as a paralegal for an administrative law judge who oversees cases involving workers' compensation claims.
Defendants include Bevin, a Republican, and the head of the state Labor Cabinet. Bevin's office and the labor agency didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Cooke's lawsuit says she's a registered Republican who voted for Bevin, who is seeking reelection this year.
Kentucky teachers and their supporters have gathered for large rallies at the state Capitol to protest pension and education proposals in the GOP-dominated legislature. Many teachers coordinated to use sick days to attend the rallies, forcing some school districts to close.
Bevin has harshly criticized the tactics. Last year on one day of mass closings, he asserted without evidence that a child left home alone had been sexually assaulted somewhere in Kentucky. He later apologized. This year, when the state's largest school district was forced to cancel classes, Bevin responded with a video on his Twitter page with the caption "SICK OF 'SICKOUTS,'" where he accused teachers of walking out on students.
Cooke's lawsuit says she joined the public education advocacy group KY 120 United last year and became one of the group's contacts in Carter County, where she lives.
In late March, Cooke took compensatory time off to attend the last day of this year's legislative session in Frankfort, Kentucky, with other KY 120 advocates, her suit says. At the Capitol, she was directed to a station where visitors' photos were taken, it says.
A security officer asked Cooke if she was a teacher, and she replied she was not, the suit says, but she then was asked if she was a state employee. When she responded "yes," the officer asked what department she worked for, it says. Cooke responded that she felt uncomfortable answering the question.
A few days later, on April 3, she was fired from her job when two Labor Cabinet officials showed up at the administrative law judge's office in Ashland, Kentucky, the suit says.
Cooke asked one of them if she was being fired because of her involvement with KY 120, the suit says. "The woman did not verbally answer, but made a gesture suggesting the answer was yes," it says.
"It is reasonable to infer that Cooke was terminated as a result of her exercise of her constitutional rights of freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and to petition the government on issues related to public education, teachers, and public employees," her suit says.
Meanwhile, Bevin's administration recently sent subpoenas to several school districts seeking the names of teachers who might have used sick days that shut down schools as they attended statehouse rallies. The state labor agency has the authority to issue fines against public workers who engage in illegal work stoppages.
The state's Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, has called for the subpoenas to be rescinded and threatened legal action if they are not. Beshear is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the state's primary next month.
On Wednesday, state Labor Secretary David Dickerson replied to Beshear that, "I see no valid reason to overlook possible violations of Kentucky law." His letter to Beshear said it's early in the investigation and his agency has made no decision whether any violations occurred.
"Make no mistake, I will do my legal duty for all the people of the Commonwealth," Dickerson's letter said. "What I will not do is set aside my obligations to uphold well-established Kentucky law because it might not sit well with you." Dickerson is among the defendants in Cooke's lawsuit.
Beshear responded that he won't allow Republican Gov. Matt Bevin "to bully our teachers and fine them up to $1,000 a day."