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Rep. Dan Johnson Refuses To Resign. What Can Fellow Legislators Do?

Rep. Dan Johnson held a press conference on Dec. 12, 2017.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Rep. Dan Johnson held a press conference on Dec. 12, 2017.

From the pulpit of his Fern Creek church Tuesday, state Rep. Dan Johnson ignored calls for his resignation and said he plans to seek re-election next spring.

“Anybody that has gotten wobbly in how they’re standing with me in the political ranks, they need to toughen up a little bit,” said Johnson, a freshman lawmaker and pastor of Heart of Fire Church.

His refusal to step down amid a molestation investigation has left officials scrambling to examine what actions, if any, they could take to censure or impeach Johnson.

Johnson’s defiant stand follows a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series that revealed Johnson lied about his resume, confessed an insurance fraud scheme to police, was a suspect in a church arson and allegedly molested a teen in in the basement of his church.

Louisville policeconfirmed Tuesday that detectives have reopened a sexual abuse investigation into Johnson.

Johnson refuted the report Tuesday, criticized KyCIR and lambasted the political climate which he said prevents “real people” from holding elected office.

"I was voted in by the people of Bullitt County," Johnson said. "These politically motivated accusations are simply an attempt to silence myself and the majority of Bullitt County, the real people."

Leaders from both political parties demanded Monday that Johnson resign. Gov. Matt Bevin stopped short of calling for his resignation, but said if the allegations are true, “people like that should not be serving the people of Kentucky.”

House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne declined to speculate about how the Republican leadership might handle Johnson’s presence in the statehouse when the legislature meets again in January.

Democratic House leadership issued a statement Wednesday saying it is “studying what actions should be taken next” to make Johnson’s ouster “a reality.”

Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat from Louisville, plans to talk with the Democratic caucus about censuring Johnson if he doesn’t resign.

A censure would not remove Johnson from office or strip him of voting rights. It’s basically a formal condemnation that says he has lost the support of his colleagues, says Al Cross, longtime political columnist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Johnson could ignore the censure and remain in the statehouse -- and even seek re-election.

At his press conference Tuesday, Johnson acknowledged that censure was a possibility.

“I would hope that there is not a double standard,” he added. “I know we had a governor here a while back that had accusations brought against him. He’s a sitting senator now.”

Johnson appeared to reference Julian Carroll, a Frankfort Democrat accused this summer of groping and sexually propositioning a man in 2005. Carroll lost his leadership position, but ignored calls for his resignation.

Earlier in December, following reports of secret sexual harassment settlements involving House Speaker Jeff Hoover, Bevin called for lawmakers to “censure and remove” the involved lawmakers.

Hoover stepped down as Speaker of the House, but remains in the assembly, as do the other lawmakers allegedly involved. There has been no official censure. Meanwhile, Rep. Wesley Morgan, a Republican from Richmond, filed a resolution to oust Hoover, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Section 39 of the state’s constitution says the House can “punish a member for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”

If that doesn’t work, impeachment is an option.

“They could decide that this episode, even though it occured before he became a candidate and took office, is still worthy of impeachment,” said Cross.

That would be an unprecedented move in the history of the Kentucky legislature. Impeachment charges have been brought against only four people in Kentucky history -- a surveyor, a treasurer, a judge and a Commissioner of Agriculture.

“The removal of a public official from office through the process of impeachment is a grave matter, as it represents a repeal of the will of the people who have elected an individual to an office of public trust,” noted a 1991 Legislative Research Commission report.

The report was written after the state’s last impeachment case, that of Commissioner of Agriculture Ward Burnette in 1991. Burnette refused to step down, even after being convicted of theft and sentenced to one year in prison. Hours before the impeachment trial was set to begin, he resigned.

Johnson is unlikely to become the first legislator to be impeached in Kentucky.

“While they could do it, and perhaps even should do it, it’s just not the kind of thing that lends itself to being dealt with in such a relatively short, very intense time period, when there’s lot of other pressing business,” said Cross.

If legislators choose not to impeach Johnson, they could work to squash his re-election efforts. Johnson is up for election in May and opponents are lining up.

Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at  eklibanoff@kycir.org and (502) 814.6544.