After hours of deliberation and sparring with his defense attorney—not to mention the news media—a full quorum of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission on Wednesday voted to reprimand and fine former state Rep. John Arnold.
It was the second, and final, hearing in the ethics case brought against the Western Kentucky Democrat by female state House staffers.
The panel voted 5-1 across three separate complaints to find Arnold guilty of violating state ethics rules. The commission found that he used his position to sexually harass and assault three employees of the state Legislative Research Commission over a period of years. In its votes, the commission reprimanded Arnold for his behavior and fined him a total of $3,000—or $1,000 for each complaint.
Arnold's attorney, Steve Downey, said he planned to appeal the commission's ruling in Franklin Circuit Court.
The verdict came after a retrial in the case against Arnold that was initially heard by the commission on April 8. During that hearing, a smaller quorum of the commission did not to convict Arnold of the charges, voting 4-1 to find Arnold guilty. Due to the commission's bylaws, five votes are required for the panel to take any action. The lone dissenter in that vote, KLEC member Elmer George, believed that the KLEC didn't have jurisdiction over a former lawmaker; he voted against Wednesday's motions to find Arnold guilty, as well.
Formal ethics complaints were filed in August by LRC employees Yolanda Costner, Cassaundra Cooper and Gloria Morgan.
Costner and Cooper petitioned the commission for a rehearing shortly after the April 8 hearing, which was granted by the commission in an unanimous vote Wednesday.
"I praise God, that's the biggest thing I can say right now. Our prayers have been answered," Costner told reporters after the guilty verdicts were announced. "We wanted the state to acknowledge that John Arnold assaulted us, and at this has hurt us and it has humiliated us, and we're just thankful today that the commission took the opportunity to rehear [the case]."
Arnold's lawyer, Downey, frequently objected to the notion of a rehearing throughout Wednesday's retrial, and in his questioning of the complainants tried to link Arnold's "perverted" behavior to what he says are symptoms of dementia.
"The decision that they made to retry Mr. Arnold after having completed their trial before is in error, it's not authorized by statute, [and] will be the subject of an appeal to Franklin Circuit Court," Downey said.
Arnold was not present for the Wednesday hearing, although Downey said that the ex-lawmaker would be present to provide testimony in the civil trial against him filed by Costner and Cooper in Franklin Circuit Court.
Wednesday's proceedings were largely a rehash of testimony presented in the April 8 hearing. Costner, Cooper and the third complainant, LRC employee Gloria Morgan, each took to the stand and provided emotional testimony that described in graphic detail several incidents of harassment by Arnold.
Downey spent much of the hearing trying to link Arnold's behavior to his deteriorating mental state, and assailed the complainants' credibility as witnesses.
And he noted that the commission didn't vote to close the case upon issuing its not guilty verdict in the April 8 trial. Therefore, it could not rehear the case without specific statutory authority to do so, he said.
The panel disagreed, including commission member George, and voted unanimously to rehear the case. KLEC member Deborah Jo Durr said the panel requires five votes to find a defendant guilty or not guilty, and that the 4-1 vote on April 8 was moot as a result. KLEC chairman George Troutman said the commission will issue a formal opinion on its ruling in the coming days.
Despite their seeming victory, Costner and Cooper alleged that a so-called culture of workplace harassment against women persists in the state Capitol, and that little has changed since they brought forth their allegations last August. They say they've faced increasing hostility and retaliation from within the LRC because of their outspokenness, and have witnessed acts of sexual harassment during the most recent session of the General Assembly. But they said they hope Wednesday's final verdict in the ethics trial against Arnold will make others feel comfortable enough to come forward to change things in Frankfort.
"They're still afraid to come out and make a public statement about how they've been treated here at LRC," Cooper said. "I don't know if they'll ever get past that fear so they will come out and speak publicly, but I think that this decision today gives a lot of hope to the employees here at LRC."
Media Kicked Out of Proceedings
As the commission deliberated whether to rehear the case, KLEC chair Troutman successfully introduced a motion to close the meeting for an executive session without citing a specific exemption to state open meetings laws.
Upon a protest of the move initially led by Tom Loftus of The Courier-Journal, 11 media outlets noted their objection and refused to leave the room.
After several minutes, KLEC members decided upon KRS 61.810(j), which states:
Deliberations of judicial or quasi-judicial bodies regarding individual adjudication or appointments, at which neither the person involved, his representatives, nor any other individual not a member of the agency's governing body or staff is present, but not including any meetings of planning commissions, zoning commissions, or boards of adjustment.
The reporters were eventually (non-violently) kicked out. When asked how the aforementioned statute applied to the commission's invocation of executive session, Troutman replied "Why don't you talk to your lawyer?"