Sexual harassment allegations change face of legislature

Not only did Gov. Matt Bevin wisely choose not to call a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly to deal with pension reform, but the Republican governor must wonder what the Republican-controlled General Assembly will look like when it convenes in January for the start of the 60-day session. While a rash of sexual assault and harassment allegations have swept through statehouses around the country, no place has been impacted quite like Kentucky: a state forced to confront its past salacious behavior in the midst of a historic transition to Republican rule.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover has resigned his leadership position after acknowledging he secretly settled a sexual harassment claim with a woman in his office. Meanwhile, three other Republican lawmakers lost their committee chairmanships for being part of the same settlement, but like Hoover has ignored calls by Bevin that they resign from the House. In addition, a freshman Republican lawmaker who was part of that new political order killed himself Wednesday after facing allegations that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl.

The allegations of sexual misconduct have not been limited to Republicans. In July, a recording surfaced detailing how Julian Carroll, a Democratic state senator from Frankfort, had propositioned a young man for sex and, according to the man, groped him. Carroll denied the allegations and police didn’t file any charges.

Three years ago, taxpayers paid $400,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against three Democratic lawmakers.

Despite the turmoil, only one lawmaker has resigned: Democrat John Arnold stepped down in 2013 when he was accused of inappropriately touching female employees. His lawyer later said he was in the early stages of dementia. Everyone else has stayed, preventing the dark cloud of scandal from dissipating and exposing a rift between the Republican and GOP legislative leaders.

“We have some of the biggest issues ever facing our state from a financial standpoint and this takes our focus away from the job we’re needing to do,” Republican state Rep. Jim Deplessis, R-Elizabethtown, rightly said.

Other statehouses have been rocked by scandal. In California, two Democratic lawmakers have resigned, and another is facing pressure amid allegations of repeated misconduct. Their names came to light after nearly 150 women who work in or around the Legislature wrote an open letter in mid-October outlining pervasive sexual harassment in the Capitol and a culture that protects it. In Ohio, Republican state Rep. Wesley Goodman resigned after acknowledging “inappropriate behavior” with a person in his office.

Republican state Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, said the allegations in the Kentucky legislature will spur change.

“There isn’t a single person in the private sector that does not know that they cannot have an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate,” he said. “They know that will be their last day on the job when they do that.”

House Republicans hired a law firm to investigate the allegations against Hoover, but the report was inconclusive. Lawmakers met with investigators but did not provide a copy of the settlement. Acting House Speaker David Osborne asked the Legislative Ethics Committee to use its subpoena power to get a copy of the settlement and find out if any part of it was paid for with money from political donors or lobbyists. And Osborne has put together a committee of lawmakers to come up with a formal system for reporting and investigating workplace complaints.

While Hoover has denied sexual harassment, he acknowledged he did send inappropriate but consensual text messages. It’s unclear what the other three Republican lawmakers involved in the settlement are accused of doing.

The scandals in Kentucky are compounded by a budget crisis, with economists projecting a $156 million deficit by June of next year and a public pension system that is at least $44 billion short of the money needed to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years.

“What we all thought was going to be a really difficult legislative session has just become even more challenging,” said Les Fugate, a veteran lobbyist. “We didn’t think that was possible.”

At a time when the Republican Party has control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time, it should be a time when the GOP can push through its legislative agenda with little help from the Democratic minority, much like the Democratic Party did when it was the dominate party in Frankfort. Instead, sexual allegations that have little to do with the major issues before the General Assembly threaten to limit how the GOP uses its new power.

The Independent of Ashland