Kentucky lawmakers urged to update ethics law to combat harassment

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers were urged by an ethics commission on Tuesday to strengthen their legislative ethics law to fill a void in the fight against sexual harassment surfacing at the state Capitol.

The issue caused upheaval during this year's legislative session.

The state's Legislative Ethics Commission recommended updating the ethics law to specifically prohibit workplace harassment by lawmakers or lobbyists against legislative staff. That law currently does not include such language, said commission Executive Director John Schaaf.

Inserting the prohibition would remove any questions about whether the commission has jurisdiction to investigate and punish lawmakers for alleged sexual harassment, its members said.

The commission has investigated such claims — most recently against ex-House Speaker Jeff Hoover — by using another standard related to misuse of public office for personal gain.

"Now that gets a little tenuous," the commission's chairman, Anthony Wilhoit, told reporters afterward. "This would make sure there is no question there."

Another commission member, former state legislator Pat Freibert, said the panel was "shocked" that a prohibition against workplace harassment by lawmakers or lobbyists wasn't already included in Kentucky's legislative ethics law.

The panel's recommendation includes definitions for workplace and sexual harassment and calls for an expedited commission review aimed at ending any inappropriate actions.

"What people want when they find themselves in this situation is they want ... it to stop, and they want to be able to work free of this type of harassment," Schaaf told the commission.

If the matter isn't resolved within 30 days, a formal complaint could be filed, leading to a full investigation by the independent commission.

The proposal aimed at combating sexual harassment was one of several recommendations approved by the commission Tuesday. The proposals — also dealing with out-of-state travel by lawmakers and the commission's authority to investigate the actions of ex-lawmakers while they were in office — will be submitted to lawmakers. The 2019 legislative session begins in January.

In recent years, Kentucky's legislature has been embroiled in sexual harassment scandals entangling Republican and Democratic legislators.

The Legislative Ethics Commission's most recent investigation involved four Republican lawmakers implicated in a secret sexual harassment settlement with a woman who once worked for the House Republican Caucus. The commission ruled that a complaint against three of the lawmakers did not contain sufficient allegations to go forward and dismissed the complaint.

But the case against Hoover continued, and the ex-speaker agreed to a $1,000 fine and a public reprimand. The commission released 50 pages of text messages between Hoover and the woman. The former speaker acknowledged that the communications, while consensual, violated ethics laws. Hoover resigned from his leadership post in January but kept his House seat.

The disciplinary action against Hoover came on the heels of the #metoo movement that erupted last year, resulting in the downfall of powerful men in politics, entertainment and media who were alleged to have behaved inappropriately with women in the workplace.

Commission members said Tuesday their recommendations could come before lawmakers as soon as next week when a joint House-Senate interim committee is scheduled to meet.

Another of the panel's recommendation would require lawmakers to list all their legislative-related out-of-state travel in their financial disclosure statements.

"We think the public has the right to know where they're going as legislators," Wilhoit said.

Lawmakers already are required to get approval from their chamber's top leader before taking out-of-state trips related to their legislative duties.

Another key proposal would ensure that the commission has authority to investigate ex-lawmakers for actions that occurred while they served in the General Assembly.

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