How deep can an agency meant to keep lobbyists and campaigns separate from the General Assembly go when it comes to actions of members not related to money — especially since sexual harassment is never mentioned under Kentucky’s legislative ethics laws?
With an investigation underway, the people of the commonwealth could soon find out.
House Speaker Jeff Hoover is holding on to the reins of power in the House of Representatives as the Legislative Ethics Commission investigates the circumstances of a sexual harassment settlement between himself and three other members of the House of Representatives, the chief of staff for House Republican leadership and a former staffer.
Hoover announced on Nov. 5, 2017 that he would resign from the leadership role, but has since maintained his position and has granted authority to House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, R-Prospect, to fulfill the duties of the speaker.
Among the factors included in Hoover’s return to the speaker’s dais is the outcome of that probe by the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Kentucky Legislative Ethics laws cover several broad categories, including the conduct of members of the General Assembly; financial disclosure statements of the General Assembly, legislative candidates, and key legislative staff.
Under the code of ethics for legislators, candidates and legislative staff, KRS Section(s) – KRS 6.606 states:
- A public official be independent and impartial;
- A public official not use public office to obtain private benefits;
- A public official avoid any action which creates the appearance that he/she is using public office to obtain a private benefit;
- Government policy and decisions be made through the established processes of government; and
- The public have confidence in the integrity of its government and its public officials.
The code of ethics also spells out in detail a code of conduct for lawmakers , essentially the statutes focus on issues related to money, state business and travel and nepotism. Basically, lobbyists should be kept at arm’s length from lawmakers.
However, the code also broadly regulates general standards of conduct under KRS 6.731.
The standards relate to: misuse of a legislator’s official influence, position, or office; use of public funds, time or personnel for private gain or partisan political activity; use of official legislative stationery or state seal for political campaigns; and intoxication while discharging the duties of office. Penalties are included in each subsection of KRS 6.731.
It’s under KRS 6.731 that former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, was prosecuted in May 2014 and fined $3,000 for sexually harassing two Legislative Research Commission aides. Arnold appealed that decision in Franklin Circuit Court, but the case was later settled out of court.
Arnold’s attorneys initially argued that nothing in Kentucky’s ethics laws relate to sexual harassment. However, the commission determined their jurisdiction in that case was his office, and thus without a legislative role he would have never had access to the employees to sexually harass them.
The same argument would likely hold true for Hoover, GOP Reps. Jim DeCesare, Brian Linder and Michael Meredith and Chief of Staff Ginger Wills who all were party to the settlement — that without their legislative office they could have never come in contact with the legislative staffer accusing them of harassment.
The Legislative Ethics Commission was asked to investigate the matter in early December, after a preliminary report by the law firm Middleton Reutlinger indicated the firm was unable to fully interview the accuser and a current staff member, who declined the firm’s request.
Middleton Reutlinger wrote in its letter to Osborne that it is “confident” that the settlement was not paid through “improper political contributions” or public dollars, the latter of which the Legislative Research Commission previously confirmed. So, the question KLEC may be forced to answer is, did Hoover and others misuse their legislative official influence, position, or office?