After nearly four months without interviewing a witness or investigating a shred of evidence, the special House committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against a former state lawmaker voted Thursday afternoon to end its operations.
The five-member Democratic-led committee deliberated for about 30 minutes during a closed session before voting 3-2 along party lines to end its probe into claims that Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, sexually harassed and assaulted female employees of the state Legislative Research Commission.
Committee chair Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Louisville, introduced the motion to disband the panel, citing an opinion drafted by their legal counsel Patrick Hughes that said the lawmakers could not discipline Arnold because he resigned in September—mere days before the committee held its inaugural meeting.
"The fact that he's not a sitting House member anymore, we really don't have that jurisdiction," Donohue said.
"As I've said, I don't like to spin our wheels here, and waste taxpayers' money, but the simple fact of the matter is it's not a feel-good type of legislation," Donohue added, referring to the committee's initial plan to draft a report of its findings and recommend policy changes regarding workplace harassment to the General Assembly. "We don't want to get together here and get a report that we really, technically, can't do anything with."
Donohue did not say how much the panel's activities has cost taxpayers, although lawmakers are paid a per diem salary of about $188. Hughes said he was retained at a standard rate of $125 per hour without expenses, but could not say the total number of hours he has worked on the case since the committee hired him in mid-October. Hughes could not offer an estimate of his total compensation.
The decision to disband the committee exposed a lingering rift within the panel between Republicans, who wanted to expand the scope of the committee to investigate broader claims of harassment within the LRC, and Democrats, who argued that their charge was limited by their founding document: A petition for censure or expulsion filed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo on Aug. 29—days before Arnold's resignation.
Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, told committee members that Hughes' interpretation of the document effectively tied their hands from probing allegations beyond Arnold.
"Inasmuch as Rep. Arnold is no longer a member of the House, there is no statutory, nor constitutional, authority that grants the General Assembly or any committee to act," Simpson said. "It's counsel's opinion that we cannot do anything to effectively punish or take any action toward Rep. Arnold."
Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, acknowledged that Hughes' opinion was sound on the matter of disciplining Arnold, but he disagreed that it meant the committee should disband.
He said Stumbo's petition would not have prevented the committee from investigating Arnold and making its report.
"The ultimate waste of the taxpayer dollar," Benvenuti said, "is likely going to come in the settlement of civil lawsuits and in future lawsuits that might be brought because we have failed to address whatever problems might exist."
Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, criticized the committee for its ineffectiveness and lack of transparency.
"The whole thing, it's so not transparent," she said. "I don't think that that's right. I don't think that's appropriate. I don't know if I'm the only one who feels this way, but I do feel there has to be some discussion on what's the final step."
Almost all of Adams' and Benvenuti's motions were defeated by committee Democrats, most notably Benvenuti's suggestion that the panel's actions require super majority votes to break the committee's apparent politicization. Another of Benvenuti's motions—to solicit information from all LRC staffers about Arnold, and possibly other lawmakers—was never brought up for a vote.
In a statement, Senate President Robert Stivers reiterated his chamber's "commitment to solving the problems confronting the LRC and restoring trust in the General Assembly."
"The vote in yesterday's LRC meeting to have the National Council [sic] of State Legislatures study the LRC's organizational structure was a strong statement of the Senate's desire to fix the problem," he continued. "We hope the House is as committed as we are."
Brian Wilkerson, a spokesperson for Stumbo, said the committee will, in fact, provide a report of its activities to the House.
"Any action taken regarding the report," he said, "will be a decision of the entire body."
That report will be written by Hughes, the committee's counsel.
"At the direction of chairman Donohue, I will be preparing a summary of the proceedings that occurred at the public meeting today," Hughes said. "And summarizing the deliberations of the committee and the actions that they have taken."
Hughes acknowledged that it would be a very short report, but said that he would be as comprehensive as possible.
Republican Suzanne Miles was elected to Arnold's Western Kentucky seat on Tuesday.
UPDATE (4:11 p.m.): Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, released the following statement on the suspension of the committee's activities:
“It is apparent House Democrats have no interest in changing the culture at the Legislative Research Commission and within its own chamber. Yesterday, House Democrat leaders unanimously opposed an independent, bipartisan audit of the LRC by a nationally recognized organization – a move that even Senate Democrats endorsed. And today, House Democrats appointed to a special committee, which was charged with investigating sexual harassment and misconduct, unilaterally shut down the investigation without issuing a report. Recent actions of House Democrats and their leaders are nothing short of appalling. Kentuckians deserve transparency in government, but House Democrats are more interested in fog and obfuscation.”