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Kentucky House lawmakers approve ethics reform

BY ADAM BEAMAssociated Press

FRANKFORT - House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the Legislative Ethics Commission on Monday in an attempt to quell the political storm that erupted last week after the panel did not punish a former lawmaker accused of sexual harassment.

In the days following the decision, the three women who filed the complaint said House Democrats were not providing a safe work environment and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes both called on the Legislative Ethics Commission to reopen the case.

Monday, House Democrats took turns expressing their "outrage" at the decision and praising the "moral courage" of three state workers who accused former Democratic state Rep. John Arnold of sexual harassment. And they approved a resolution officially honoring the women after an attorney at the Legislative Ethics Commission said it would not violate state ethics law. Two of the women have a lawsuit against Arnold and the Legislative Research Commission pending in state court.

"We want to send a message that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in any branch of the government," Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said.

Steve Downey, Arnold's attorney, has argued the lawmaker was suffering from early symptoms of dementia

"Any efforts to undo what has legally been done by the Legislative Ethics Commission should be abandoned in fairness to Mr. Arnold, who has been tried and found not guilty," Downey said.

While the changes passed 98-0, House Republicans used the opportunity to skewer their Democratic colleagues - who control the house with an eight-seat majority - for not doing something sooner.

"What the real intent of (this bill) should say is we will not tolerate harassment of any kind until there is enough pressure from the public placed upon us that we have to no longer ignore it," Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, said. "That's what I feel like we are doing here today in this chamber."

State employees Cassaundra Cooper, Yolanda Costner and Gloria Morgan all filed ethics complaints last year alleging Arnold touched them inappropriately over a four year period. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo appointed a special committee to investigate the charges, but that committee disbanded without taking action.

Last week, the Legislative Ethics Commission voted 4-1 to find former Arnold guilty of abusing his public office. But state law requires the nine member commission have at least five "yes" votes to convict someone. Three commissioners were absent and one seat was vacant. Commissioner Elmer George voted "no" because he said the commission did not have the authority to punish a former lawmaker.

Legislation approved Monday:

n Required all commission members to attend at least half of the commission meetings in a calendar year

n Required the commission to have at least two women members and at least one minority member

n Clarified that the commission does have jurisdiction over former lawmakers

n Specifically defined sexual harassment by a lawmaker as "ethical misconduct."

And Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo called on the ethics commission to reopen the case. The three women have filed a motion asking the commission to reconsider their decision, which commission members will discuss at their meeting next month.

"It's nice to have the support, and it's kind of surprising," said Cooper, one of the three women who filed the complaint. "I hope everybody who put a "yes" up on that board ... that it wasn't just something they could put on a campaign flier come this fall."

It's unclear whether the ethics bill will pass the state Senate.

"On the next-to-the-last day is when they decide to file a bill," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said. "It doesn't speak to one that's having true intentions. It speaks to one that's wanting to play a game with smoke and mirrors."

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