Former Kentucky state Rep. John Arnold allegedly inappropriately touched a House colleague, according to new filings in a sexual harassment civil suit by two Statehouse staff members.
In a pair of responses to discovery requests, Legislative Research Commission employees Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper allege that Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, was inappropriately touched by Arnold.
Costner also made the allegation in her state ethics complaint filed in August against Arnold. In that complaint, Costner said that as part of an inquiry into their claims by high-ranking LRC staff, former LRC executive director Bobby Sherman and Roy Collins, the LRC assistant director for human resources, told her and Cooper that Overly was “touched” by Arnold.
Neither Sherman nor Collins returned a request for comment.
Citing a conversation with Sherman and Collins, Costner alleges that she and Cooper were told that Arnold touched Rep. Overly “on the thigh” and rubbed her shoulders. WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reached out months ago to Overly about the allegations and again this week. She would not comment.
In an interview Wednesday with Kentucky Public Radio, Costner said she discussed Arnold’s alleged behavior with Overly in the Capitol Annex building sometime in February.
Costner said Overly told her about an incident in January in which Arnold allegedly rubbed Overly’s thigh, as well as another incident on the House floor at a different time when Arnold allegedly began rubbing Overly’s shoulders. In the court filing, Costner claims that she spoke with Overly about the claims in her initial complaint.
It is unclear from the filings and ethics complaints when or where the alleged contact between the Democratic legislators happened. According to Costner’s ethics complaint, Overly discussed the matter with Sherman and Collins.
Costner tells KPR that she is disappointed that Overly as well as other members of the House Democratic Caucus, specifically naming Majority Whip Rep. Tommy Thompson and Floor Leader Rocky Adkins as not doing enough to protect staff from Arnold.
Cooper is as an administrative assistant to Adkins, and Costner is as an adviser to Thompson.
“I’m disappointed that she hasn’t stepped up in any way,” Costner said of Overly. “I thought she would.”
Elected in 2008, Overly is the House majority caucus chair—the first woman to serve in a leadership position in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, resigned in September; he said in his resignation letter that he did not believe he’d committed sexual harassment.
Overly did not file a complaint against Arnold with his agency, said John Schaaf, an attorney with the state Legislative Ethics Commission. He added that it is unusual for legislators to do so.
The new filings also allege that “all female House members … are aware of [Arnold’s] inappropriate comments and actions.”
This fall, state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said the allegations are an example of why leaders should address the culture in the state capitol regarding sexual harassment—which, according to some in Frankfort, is a persistent problem.
“In response to the revelation regarding Caucus Leader Overly, I think it is appalling,” Marzian said. “And I think it demonstrates the need for sexual harassment training for legislators, as well as for staff and the whole capitol.”
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting detailed in September a culture of lax workplace rules regarding harassment and office relationships within the LRC.
Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, told WFPL earlier this year that a House member told her he would pass out of committee a bill she’d sponsored in exchange for a sexual favor. Jenkins said the incident occurred early in her tenure, and she would not name the legislator.
Overly, along with Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, has proposed sweeping legislation to make the issue of workplace harassment more visible in state government.Their proposal would make sexual harassment training mandatory for legislators as well as require the Legislative Ethics Commission to “establish comprehensive policies and procedures to maintain a harassment-free workplace” within the LRC.
A special House investigative committee formed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo to investigate the claims against Arnold did not discuss the allegations regarding Overly.
Brian Wilkerson, a spokesperson for Stumbo, said that the speaker would not comment on matters concerning pending legislation.
Arnold’s attorney, Steve Downey, would not comment on the civil suit, saying that he had yet to see the filing, but offered a statement on Arnold’s health.
“Mr. Arnold’s doctors have significant concerns regarding his mental and cognitive capacity, and have had for the past two to three years,” Downey said. “John is not himself, and has not been for quite some time.
“He has suffered a series of ministrokes, approximately two years ago, has had coronary artery bypass surgery in the spring of 2012. His neurologist continues to evaluate John to determine [the state of his health] and a recent MRI confirmed the many strokes. Further testing is ongoing.”
Judge Tony Wilhoit of the Legislative Ethics Commission told Kentucky Public Radio that Arnold’s declining physical and mental health is the chief reason why an adjudicatory hearing in the ethics case against him was rescheduled from Dec. 12 to Feb. 25.
Arnold was first elected to the state House in 1995. He narrowly won re-election in 2012; Republican Suzanne Miles was elected last week to represent the Western Kentucky district.
The court filings said both women are seeking an award by trial jury of no more than $500,000 for “emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and mental anguish.”
Cooper’s filing states she has missed 36 days of work as a result of Arnold’s alleged actions, and Costner’s response said that she has missed 64 days for the same reason. Both women claim they suffer from medical problems because of the alleged incidents, and are also seeking backpay and benefits for the missed work.