Kentucky sexual harassment inquiry sent to ethics commission

FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2017 file photo, Jeff Hoover looks up to the cheers from the gallery following his swearing in Frankfort, Ky. A taxpayer-funded investigation of a secret sexual harassment settlement signed by four GOP lawmakers in Kentucky was stymied because the lawmakers refused to talk about it or disclose documents. A report by a Kentucky law firm confirmed that former House Speaker Jeff Hoover, his chief of staff Ginger Wills and lawmakers Jim DeCesare, Michael Meredith and Brian Linder all signed a sexual harassment settlement. None would discuss the settlement or provide documents or emails to investigators. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Timothy D. Easley

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A taxpayer-funded investigation of a secret sexual harassment settlement signed by four GOP lawmakers in Kentucky was stymied because the lawmakers refused to talk about it or disclose documents.

A report by a Kentucky law firm confirmed that former House Speaker Jeff Hoover, his chief of staff Ginger Wills and lawmakers Jim DeCesare, Michael Meredith and Brian Linder all agreed to settle a sexual harassment claim brought by a member of the House GOP caucus staff.

Although all agreed to be interviewed, none would discuss the settlement, say how much money was paid or provide documents or emails to investigators. In Kentucky, legislative emails are privileged and can be released only if the lawmaker agrees.

In response, acting House Speaker David Osborne asked the Legislative Ethics Commission to take over the investigation. Specifically, he wants the commission to use its subpoena power to get a copy of the settlement and find out if any part of it was paid by political donors or lobbyists, which would be illegal.

"There is still information we don't have, and we believe the Ethics Commission can and should get it to give the people of Kentucky a full and complete picture of what happened," Osborne said in a news release.

Hoover acknowledged the settlement and resigned his leadership position last month after it was first reported by the Courier Journal. House GOP leaders have removed DeCesare, Meredith and Linder from their committee chairmanships. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has asked for all four to resign, but none have.

Wills remains in her post as chief of staff, working with Osborne and other Republican leaders.

Shortly after Hoover resigned, House GOP leaders hired the Middleton Reutlinger law firm to investigate the settlement. While the firm interviewed 40 witnesses, the woman who made the claim declined to talk. Investigators could not get a copy of the woman's original demand letter or the settlement. And the public officials involved refused to talk about it because they said the settlement requires them to keep the details private.

Investigators said they were confident lawmakers did not use illegal political donations to pay for the settlement. They wrote that public officials assured them the settlement was paid for with their own money or borrowing from "arms-length loan transactions" from banks or "family members or close family friends not involved in lobbying, government contract work or any other impermissible endeavour."

Redacted documents included in the report show Hoover paid his portion of the settlement in part with a loan from First National Bank in Russell Springs, Kentucky.

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However, the ethics complaint filed by Osborne notes investigators could not be sure because the lawmakers "would not share the amount of the settlement and legal fees paid."

The report, signed by attorney Dennis D. Murrell, said the firm found it "untenable that legislators elected by the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky can settle claims involving alleged workplace activity ... without disclosing it to the Ethics Commission" or others. It also noted there was no policy in place for partisan staff to report workplace complaints.

Osborne said he is considering appointing a task force to develop a formal system to address workplace complaints. He said Republican leaders are preparing to respond to the report but did not elaborate. A question-and-answer section included in Osborne's news release asked "should any staff members be fired?"

Osborne responded by saying: "Personnel decisions will be made by House Leadership, and we are planning to follow up with a memo on internal personnel issues in the coming days."

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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