FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s highest ethics panel has found merit in a trio of sexual harassment complaints filed against a former state lawmaker.
The state Legislative Ethics Commission unanimously found probable cause Tuesday in three formal complaints filed by female Statehouse employees against former Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis in western Kentucky.
“What happened here today was saying that there is the possibility that a violation of the ethics code was committed,” said George Troutman, chairman of the ethics commission. “Not that [a violation] was committed, not that it wasn’t, but there’s possibility that it could have been.”
The commission based its decision off of the evidence collected by Mike Malone, a former commonwealth’s attorney, who serves as an investigator for the ethics commission’s enforcement arm. The investigation stems from complaints filed by three female employees of the Legislative Ethics Commission who claim that Arnold sexually harassed and assaulted them for years.
Arnold may have violated KRS 6.731(3), a portion of the state ethics code that regulates the standards of conduct for lawmakers and the violation of which is scheduled as a Class A misdemeanor, according to three orders issued Tuesday by the commission. The statute specifically addresses the “use or attempt to use [a lawmaker’s] official position to secure or create privileges, exemptions, advantages, or treatment for himself or others in direct contravention of the public interest at large.”
Each of the orders found cause in claims that Arnold subjected the women to “inappropriate and unwanted physical contact.”
Steve Downey, Arnold’s attorney who was present for the hearing, declined to provide comment.
Arnold resigned last month, citing health concerns and the effects of media reports about the allegations. This week, Gov. Steve Beshear said that a special election to fill Arnold’s vacant District 7 House seat will be held on Dec. 10.
The commission also voted to hold an adjudicatory hearing on Dec. 12 that will serve as a public hearing to examine evidence and hear witness testimony to determine if Arnold violated state ethics laws. The commission will have the power to collect and review evidence, subpoena witnesses.
In the event that the commission Arnold is found guilty, the only punishments available to the commission are a public or private reprimand and a fine of up to $2,000. Troutman said he was unsure if Arnold could be fined per each count or for each complaint.
John Schaaf, legal counsel for the KLEC, said that that the statute is vague on how to assess the size of the fine in the event of a guilty verdict.
“Any order they might issue as a result of a hearing would include a range of options,” Schaaf said. “In a case where they find clear and convincing proof of a violation and determine a fine is appropriate, they would then have to determine how much that fine would be.”
Troutman said he believes that since the statute applies to conduct while he was in office then the commission has appropriate jurisdiction in its proceedings even though Arnold has resigned.
Cassaundra Cooper, one of the women whom has alleged harassment against Arnold, said she was satisfied with the commission’s decision.
“I’m pleased with the process,” Cooper said. “And I’m hoping it continues down the path, with the statutes that they’re quoting, that we do have probable cause and just leave it up to the process for now.”