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Legislative Research Commission Director: Sexual Harassment Allegations Taken Seriously

The director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission says sexual harassment claims are taken seriously by his agency, despite an employee's expressed disappointment of how her allegations against a state legislator were handled.

The comments come after WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a story on allegations that state Rep. John A. Arnold Jr. had sexually assaulted and harassed two women employed by the Legislative Research Commission. Following that story, state Rep. Tom Riner delivered a speech that decried what he described as the Capitol’s culture of sexual harassment against women.

Speaking Wednesday on the House floor, Riner said that culture has pervaded the legislature for decades.

"I think that it's time that each of us take seriously this matter. I think that we are all very sensitive to anything that regards another legislator,” said Riner, standing mere feet away from Arnold on the House floor.

“We don't like to see another legislator get in trouble. But you can't have it both ways. You cannot be the defender of both parties. You can't defend those who have been violated at the same time, defend the perpetrator."

Riner, a Louisville Democrat, said his efforts to get more information about the allegations against Arnold were stymied by the LRC's staff, who cited privacy concerns.

Robert Sherman, director of the Legislative Research Commission, characterized Riner’s remarks on the House floor as “a good speech” and said he shared “the sentiments expressed therein.”

But Sherman refused to discuss the complaints filed Friday to the Legislative Ethics Commission against Arnold by two LRC employees because they involved “personnel issues.”

Sherman also declined to address directly Riner’s assertion that sexual harassment and intimidation involving legislators and LRC employees is a serious matter that has existed for decades, and now demands renewed attention and a more aggressive response.

Sherman said he cares about protecting his staff “and they know it.” He added that complaints of harassment or abuse are taken seriously, pursued promptly, managed professionally and never ignored.

“I’m proud of…our complaint procedure,” Sherman said.

But the complaint filed last week by Yolanda Costner said she was “so unhappy that LRC is not supportive."  And Cooper's says " I feel like the people that I put my trust in to provide me a safe work environment have let me down and they continue to let me down. I am appalled that the people responsible for establishing laws are so eager to ignore them."

Costner’s complaint alleges that as she was walking up a stairway to the Capitol Annex in March 2010, Arnold grabbed the back of her underwear and pants, causing her to nearly fall down the stairway.

Costner, executive adviser to the office of House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, also alleged that last January, Arnold approached her desk and began massaging her shoulders without her consent, and that he had cursed her the previous day.

And the complaint filed on Friday by Cassaundra Cooper, an aide to House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, alleges that she and Costner “feel helpless and that LRC is only trying to get them to say all is well.”

Sherman acknowledged it is possible that abuses are happening because, “in any organization, something could occur. The obligation is to use your system to address and remediate them, and we do that.”

(Related: Previous stories on the allegations from WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.)

'It's Still Assault'

Riner did not mention Arnold by name, but he did quote passages from the story by WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting on the allegations against Arnold.

"When you hit someone, whether it's on their buttocks, it's still assault,” Riner said.

Arnold declined to comment on Riner’s remarks. After the House adjourned for the day, Arnold left the Capitol.

Riner also said in his speech that members of the House Democratic caucus were made aware of such harassment but did nothing to offer aid out of fear that the fallout could affect their party’s outcomes during an election cycle. He declined to name which representatives knew about the allegations brought by Cooper and Costner.

He said that legislators are perpetually focused on the next election cycle, and that some Democrats “know there will be a price to pay if this is not corrected, but the issue is we really do not want to deal with it as a party” primarily because all of the representatives named in the women’s complaints are Democrats.

“We tend to want to ignore it because it focuses poorly on our party,” he said, calling the situation “a black eye on the legislature.”

He said he plans to introduce a resolution Thursday that commending employers “that thoroughly investigate actions of sexual harassment and unprofessional conduct.”

Riner Denied Information

The Legislative Research Commission denied a records request submitted by Riner which sought “copies of any and all records relating to sexual harassment complaints against and/or involving Representative John Arnold,” according to documents Riner provided to WFPL.

This request, made on July 18, was denied by the LRC on July 23 on the grounds that disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwanted invasion of personal privacy,” among other criteria.

Riner followed up with another records request on Aug. 14 in which he discussed meeting with LRC attorney Laura Hendrix to amend his original request to narrow its scope to the date of the first incident of harassment against Arnold and how many women may have filed such complaints.

“I let you know at that time that this was an issue that impacted the credibility of this institution and that I did not understand why you could not answer those two questions that would not infringe on anyone’s privacy,” Riner wrote, adding that LRC personnel director Roy Collins allegedly “had a thick file” on Arnold.

In a letter dated Aug. 20, Hendrix wrote back, saying “there are no records responsive to that request.”