FRANKFORT—A former state House lawmaker accused of sexually harassing and assaulting three female state employees has been cleared of the ethics charges they filed against him.
In considering witness testimony and evidence filed in three ethics cases against former Rep. John Arnold, the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted 4-1 on the complaints filed by women who work in the state’s Legislative Research Commission.
“Women who are being sexually harassed here in Frankfort … you just have to take a spanking on the butt, you have to take having your underwear pulled, you have to take being verbally assaulted,” Yolanda Costner, one of the women who filed the complaint, said of the panel’s verdict.
“And nobody’s going to care about it, nobody’s going to do anything, so it’s best if you want to keep your job, keep your position, keep your mouth shut,” she said.
Only five members of the nine-member panel were present for Tuesday’s deliberations. The panel’s bylaws stipulate that motions to convict a legislator of an ethics violation require five votes. Judge Tony Wilhoit, executive director of the ethics commission, said that three members were out of town, and one position, appointed by the LRC, has been vacant for years.
Marion County Attorney Elmer George, who was appointed to the ethics commission in January by Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, was the only no vote on each of the three motions. He told the panel that he was voting against the motions because Arnold resigned in September, and felt that the panel didn’t have jurisdiction over him.
Arnold’s lawyer, Bowling Green attorney Steve Downey, said the ruling was proof that justice has been served.
“I have spoken with Sandy Arnold, John’s wife, and told her. She’s delighted,” Downey said. “She will explain this to John, and I’ll speak with John a little later about it. We’re very happy that justice was done here.”
The three women who filed formal ethics complaints against Arnold—LRC partisan staffers Cooper and Yolanda Costner, as well as non-partisan legislative secretary Gloria Morgan—provided sworn testimony during the hearing in which they relayed the contents of those complaints before the five-member ethics panel.
The women described a working relationship with Arnold that revolved around a fear over contact with him as they described in detail the incidents they alleged in their complaints.
Downey based his defense on the argument that Arnold’s declining mental and physical health, which he says includes “aggressive dementia,” should be a mitigating factor in their decision.
The women filed their complaints in August last year, which prompted Stumbo to appoint a special five-member committee of House members to investigate the matter. That committee disbanded after six meetings without examining a shred of evidence or interviewing a single witness.
Arnold, a retired chiropractor who was first elected to the Kentucky House in 1994, was not present for Tuesday’s hearing.
In his closing arguments, Downey argued that Arnold’s behavior beginning in 2013, which included smoking in House leadership offices and allegedly cursing at Costner, were signs of “aberrant behavior by Rep. Arnold,” which Downey argued were signs of his client’s deteriorating mental state.
Downey cited a deposition from Garland Certain, president of United Community Bank of West Kentucky and who he says is a longtime friend of Arnold’s, which claimed that Arnold had not been “acting like himself” in recent years, and it “would have been out of character for him” to have struck Cooper on her buttocks as she alleged per a Feb 14, 2013 incident.
Downey also acknowledged that Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, probably wasn’t fit to be a member of the legislature. He previously told Kentucky Public Radio that Arnold has suffered from a series of mini-strokes. “People get dementia, their filters turn off,” Downey said, and called Arnold’s behavior “sophomoric and boorish.” He said he believes that Arnold did not gain sexual gratification from his acts.
Up until his resignation, Arnold was a vice-chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.
But Mike Malone, prosecutor on the case for the ethics commission, told the panel that while Arnold’s mental health should be taken into consideration, he should be held accountable for his actions. He declined to provide a comment after the verdict.
Malone cited a 2014 medical examination by one of Arnold’s doctors which he said showed that Arnold was mentally competent enough to know right from wrong.
“It’s clearly conduct that is against the public interest at large,” Malone told the panel.
At the outset of the hearing, Downey filed a motion to remove the case on grounds that the ethics commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over matter of sexual harassment because it deals primarily with financial matters involving legislators, and that it lost jurisdiction over Arnold once he resigned.
“The conduct, I would argue, does fall under the statute,” Malone argued. “This is not a suit about harassment or sexual harassment; it’s a suit that gets down to the issue of the abuse of public office.”
Malone said that because the complaints were filed while Arnold was a member of the legislature, “his subsequent resignation should not deprive the commission of jurisdiction.”
The commission voted to overrule Downey’s motion after discussing the issue in a brief, closed-door executive session, permitting the proceedings to continue.
James Curless, an investigator for the ethics commission’s investigative arm, played a recorded interview with Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, whom witnessed a 2010 incident in which Arnold allegedly grabbed Costner’s underwear as they ascended the Capitol annex steps, nearly knocking Costner down the steps in the process.
“I witnessed something that shocked and surprised me,” Meeks told Curless. “[Arnold] laughed it off, and said to me, ‘I been knowing her longer than you been knowing her,’” adding that he “had words” with Arnold but didn’t elaborate.
In Costner’s original ethics complaint, Meeks was alleged to have said to Arnold “You don't every (sic) touch a sister! Yolanda is a married woman and somebody's mother. You never grab or touch another man's wife!! You better not let me catch you disrespecting Yolanda or any other sister again!!”
Curless said Meeks could not attend Tuesday’s hearing because he had made plans to go on vacation with his family.
Cooper and Costner say that little has changed since they filed their initial complaints in August, and that they feel they’re not protected in the workplace.
“I think they need to step up and take responsibility for one of their former members,” Cooper said. “When all this took place, he wasn’t a former member, he was a member. So to hold him accountable for his actions, that would have given us some sense of justice today, but we didn’t get that.”
Costner says that George’s "no" vote reflects “good old boy” politics, and that he cast his vote as a favor to Stumbo for the appointment.
“I consider it an insult that someone would say that I made a decision based solely on politics,” George said. He denied discussing his vote with Stumbo beforehand, and stated that he based his vote on the facts of the case.
A request for comment from Stumbo’s office has not been returned.
Update: Speaker's Response
Here's a statement from Stumbo:
“We stand by our original and consistent response; the day we learned of the incident we acted to protect our employees and instructed the LRC Director to investigate the allegations and follow our policy. The testimony today confirms these facts.”