In Kentucky Legislature, Lax Rules Govern Workplace Relationships Despite Long History of Scandal
During the 1990s, the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission’s public image was shaped primarily by the sordid antics of Kent Downey, whose day job there often overlapped with his sideline business promoting golf trips with scantily clad hostesses offering sex for money.
Downey, who was director of House operations prior to being fired in 1996, sometimes drank and caroused at work. He put strippers on the state payroll and adorned his office with pictures of scantily clad women and a small plant with condoms hanging from the branches.
More broadly, there existed a sexually-charged atmosphere in the Capitol, where powerful male lawmakers vastly outnumbered female legislators and in some cases engaged in personal relationships with women who worked as legislative support staff.
Some politicians pledged change following Downey’s 1997 federal conviction for promoting prostitution and gambling. And LRC shenanigans appeared, at least publicly, to have subsided under the leadership of Robert Sherman, who took over as director in 1999.
But the legislative body never adopted any new guidelines or rules barring or restricting regarding relationships with co-workers.
And incidents of inappropriate intra-office personal relationships continued under Sherman’s leadership, pervading and poisoning the workplace, according to documents and more than 50 interviews by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting with current and former LRC employees, legislators and others.
In recent weeks, another scandal with sexual overtones gripped the Capitol, leading to the resignation of longtime State Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis in western Kentucky. Last Friday, Sherman too announced his retirement, leaving behind a job that paid him $195,000 per year—$59,000 more than Gov. Steve Beshear.
And personal relationships also recently have entangled at least two LRC employees and two longtime legislators, according to recently filed sexual harassment complaints and court records.
The latest allegations have several lawmakers calling for reforms—again—and a closer look the workplace culture in Frankfort.
As head of the LRC, Sherman himself was accused of having a long-running liaison with a subordinate in his office. A letter from anonymous, self-proclaimed whistleblowers, identifying themselves only as LRC employees, called attention to the alleged relationship in 2007 in a letter addressed to legislative leaders and others.
Current and former colleagues told KyCIR that they have seen Sherman and Rita Ratliff, an administrative officer for legislative process, attend cultural events, hold hands and kiss in public. Colleagues further allege that Ratliff has spoken openly in the office about their relationship, and that the pair once briefly borrowed the Frankfort home of another LRC staffer.
Sherman denied in an interview that there was anything inappropriate about his relationship with Ratliff, but he declined to discuss it in detail. Ratliff declined to be interviewed.
Sherman and Ratliff were among five LRC employees present at his former office last Sunday, and both participated in the shredding of documents, according to The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
The newspaper on Tuesday quoted Sherman as saying that some of the documents were his personal papers and that others included private employee information, but nothing related to harassment allegations or agency investigations.
Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, representing two of the woman who filed sexual harassment complaints against Arnold, advised the LRC by letter on Tuesday not to destroy any additional materials.
LRC Policy Doesn't Address Office Relationships
LRC personnel policy is silent on the propriety of personal relationships among employees. And it says only that associations with legislators “must not adversely affect LRC operations.” Those that do “will have a direct effect on that employee’s ability to continue to work for LRC,” the policy manual states.
The absence of workplace rules explicitly banning or restricting such relationships at the LRC has allowed them to flourish, many of those interviewed said. Former state Rep. Carl Rollins, who now is executive director of the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, said the KHEAA prohibits relationships involving managers and subordinates, and that the LRC should do likewise.
“You should certainly never have a personal relationship with anyone you supervise,” Rollins said. “I certainly think it should be the policy everywhere.
“It never ends well when a supervisor and somebody they supervise end up in a relationship. It could send a message about favoritism, and there could be charges of sexual harassment by the supervisor that could embroil the agency in litigation.”
Many legislators, and current and former LRC employees, also said they favor an outright prohibition, or at least clear guidelines, on supervisors and legislators consorting with those who work for the agency.
“There is a differential in power,” said state Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Louisville Democrat. “Legislators do have power over LRC staff.”
Some, including Sherman and state Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, think such relationships do not warrant regulation because they are no one else’s business as long as they involve consenting adults and do not disrupt the workplace.
However, the authors of the anonymous letter claimed that the relationship between Sherman and Ratliff bred favoritism, and that she used her connection with him to "influence management, personnel and policy decisions." The letter stated: “Employees are hired, promoted and given job assignments and salary increases based on whether or not the employee" is in her favor.
The authors requested assistance in “rectifying a situation that is a source of harassment, hostility and bias in our work environment.” The letter said anonymity was necessary “due to risk of retaliation and reprisal.”
“It is widely understood by employees of the agency that because of her influence with the director, she can make any other employee’s life at work miserable. Their relationship affects every function area of the Legislative Research Commission.”
In March 2007, two weeks after the letters was sent, the 12 female members of the Kentucky House of Representatives wrote to its leadership, characterizing the letter’s allegations as “serious,” identifying a “potentially explosive situation,” and requesting that it be investigated because of its implications for Sherman “and those he has placed in management positions within” the LRC.
But after months of inaction, legislative leaders voted unanimously in October 2007 not to investigate the letter’s merits—but to instead pursue its alleged “improper disclosure.”
The LRC is governed by a 16-member panel consisting of Democratic and Republican leaders from the House and Senate. It provides a variety of services, including research, analysis, library and secretarial support, to legislators.
Democratic state Rep. Jody Richards of Bowling Green, who was speaker of the House when the anonymous letter was received, said in a recent interview that he wanted the letter’s allegations investigated but that Senate leadership balked.
“House leadership took it much more seriously than the Senate leadership did,” Richards said.
David Williams, the Senate president at the time and who is now a state circuit court judge, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Harassment Complaint Highlights Sherman
The relationship between Sherman and Ratliff surfaced again last month in the complaints filed by two LRC employees against Arnold. Arnold resigned from the legislature on Sept. 13, proclaiming his innocence and saying his political career had been destroyed.
In her complaint, Cassaundra Cooper said it was “a disgrace to have the director of the agency (Sherman) having a very public affair with one of his employees. I fell like it is the case of the fox guarding the hen house.”
The 61-year-old Sherman's resignation last Friday afternoon came a week after KyCIR questioned him at length about his relationship with Ratliff and its effect on other LRC employees. Sherman, who is married, insisted that there was “nothing inappropriate or untoward” about his relationship with Ratliff. “She is a dear and long friend of mine,” Sherman said.
He declined to elaborate on the relationship, saying, “I’m not going to speak on a fishing expedition about my personal life.”Sherman also said he did not see anything wrong with an LRC supervisor having a personal relationship with a subordinate, “as long as the workplace is not affected, not negatively affected.”
Sherman’s resignation letter said only that he had been contemplating retirement “for some time,” and that the recent conclusion of an LRC investigation into the sexual harassment complaints filed by Cooper and fellow employee Yolanda Costner made this “a logical time” to depart.
Sherman on Tuesday declined to answer questions about his resignation, saying that he did not think KyCIR's reporting would be fair to him.
Rules On Relationships Vary In Other Agencies
Personal relationships are common in a broad array of workplace environments, both public and private, and the rules—if any—governing them vary widely In recent years, top executives at Best Buy, Boeing and the World Bank all were forced to resign after their personal relationships with subordinates came to light.
Some companies and other organizations prohibit intra-office dating, while others agree with Sherman and Stivers that what employees do on their own time is no one else’s business as long as it stays out of the office.
The Kentucky Community and Technical College System discourages but does not ban relationships between supervisors and subordinates.
The KCTCS guidelines also note, however, that there are “professional risks” associated with even consensual relationships in which a “definite power differential between the parties exists.”
Those arguing for an outright ban on intimate relationships involving LRC supervisors and subordinates contend that because of that “power differential,” actual consent is difficult if not impossible when the two people involved have unequal levels of authority.
Former state Auditor Crit Luallen said that, as a general rule, whenever “someone has power and authority over another person, and develops a personal relationship, it can harm the morale of the institution. “
"It’s not a healthy situation to have a supervisor having a romantic relationship with a subordinate,” Luallen added. “And certainly legislators shouldn’t be having relationships with these women, because they can determine whether (the women) survive; they can feel coerced.”
Former state Sen. David Karem, now the president of Louisville’s Waterfront Development Corp., agreed.
“Even if she reaps no benefits, there’s always going to be the question among other similar-level employees: ‘Is she getting better treatment?’” Karem said. “It’s not helpful, or healthful, to the overall work environment.”
If a Water Development Corp. supervisor became personally involved with someone he or she supervised, Karem said, “Somebody would get fired for this. If it came to me, I would sit down with the person and say, ‘one of you needs to leave.’”
Other Legislators Cited In Harassment Complaint
The sexual harassment complaint filed by LRC employee Costner against Arnold, also describes alleged affairs involving LRC staff members and Reps. John Will Stacy, a Democrat from West Liberty, and Keith Hall, a Phelps Democrat.
The potential volatility of such relationships is illustrated by Costner’s description of an incident allegedly involving Hall’s wife. Costner claims Hall's wife received a text message with sexual overtones that he had intended to send to an LRC employee he was romantically involved with.
According to Costner’s account, Hall’s wife, Stephanie, came to the LRC employee’s office, “destroyed her pictures,” including one of the woman’s daughter, and also left a copy of Keith Hall’s text message, accompanied by a handwritten note, taped to the woman’s computer and telling her “to quit immediately.”
Stephanie Hall did not respond to a request for comment.
Costner’s complaint further asserted that Stacy appeared unconcerned in March 2010 when she told him about Arnold’s alleged harassment of her, and that Stacy—who was a Democratic Party leader at the time—described Arnold as “harmless.”
Stacy and Hall did not respond to numerous requests for comment. The two employees, one of whom now works elsewhere in state government, both declined to be interviewed.
Hall told The (Frankfort) State Journal last month that he had been in the process of divorcing his wife for more than a year, and confirmed that she destroyed the secretary’s property as well as his legislative office. The incident had nothing to do with the divorce, Hall said. He also denied any sexual relationship with the LRC employee.
Stacy too denied to the newspaper any romantic relationship with an LRC employee. Stacy's name also surfaced more than a decade ago in the Downey investigation. Stacy dated a former nightclub waitress, who was placed on the state payroll after previously having a sexual relationship with Downey, according to court records.
Even with the spotlight again on intra-office relationships within the LRC, it remains unclear whether or how they actually will be addressed.
State Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris, who chairs the Democratic caucus in the House, pre-filed legislation that would require an independent evaluation of the LRC’s existing workplace policies and procedures and would mandate the adoption of a formal personnel system to govern all employees of the agency.
However, her bill does not directly address the question of personal relationships within the LRC, or between LRC staff and legislators. She did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Several other legislative leaders refused to be interviewed on this subject, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, and House Majority Whip Rocky Adkins, a Sandy Hook Democrat.
The legislation could be a vehicle for addressing the relationships issue, said Democratic state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, who favors banning them.
“But the reality is, what can we get through (the legislature), if you put it out there and all the guys go, ‘we’re not even going to give this a hearing.’”