Fear and groping in Frankfort

Sep 4, 2013 at 5:00 am

Two weeks ago, WFPL aired a story that rocked the state Capitol. Two women who worked closely with Democratic leaders in the House filed an ethics complaint alleging a pattern of sexual and verbal harassment by longtime Democrat Rep. John Arnold, 69, of Union County. The women’s claims seem credible. And there are elected witnesses. 

Some Capitol insiders who know Arnold were more saddened than shocked. The retired chiropractor and heavy smoker is beset by heart disease and strokes. Now he’s besieged by private and public pleas to resign as Democratic leaders clamor to control collateral damage. Democrats deny claims that they dismissed or suppressed the complaints. Meanwhile, the state GOP will continue to ask whether House leaders schemed to conceal a potential scandal for the protection of Arnold, the party and its narrow majority in the House. Proof of a cover-up could be spun to cast top Democrats as enablers of harassment — protecting offenders at the expense of victims.

The story rivets wide interest because it’s sensational yet substantive, twisted and mysterious. Its complexities, potential consequences and lessons stagger the imagination. Confronting concerns on aging, equal protection in the workplace and the legislative gender gap serve the public interest. Women are sensitizing men to the Capitol’s “culture of sexual harassment,” and Rep. Reggie Meeks, D-42, is asking leaders for commitments “to change the culture” that permits abuses to persist. Opinion is a mix of guarded optimism and unrepentant skepticism. The women I surveyed agree that the culture is much less hostile than in decades bygone. They also agreed on a two-pronged strategy to abort harassment: forcefully and furiously. I took that to mean a bitch slap followed by a dope slap. But I doubt that Dr. Phil, who famously said, “We teach people how to treat us,” would prescribe violence where public humiliation is indicated.

It’s understandable that the alleged victims, employees of the Legislative Research Commission, felt intimated to come forward. I wonder how their supervisors could feel comfortable protecting them by conveying reports of a lawmaker behaving badly up the chain of command, to the 16 leaders of the legislature who also oversee the LRC. Employees of the LRC, the unsung heroes of good government, deserve to have their complaints reviewed credibly and convincingly — by a more independent agency.

When lawmakers finally implement sexual harassment training for themselves, the time will be ripe for zero tolerance. Employees should be encouraged to report offenders who ignore an unambiguous “cease-and-desist forthwith” admonition. No mediators, no third parties, no excuses, no apologies. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Floyd County Democrat, unwittingly confirmed the insanely inherent conflicts of self-investigation. In an Aug. 22 floor speech, he affirmed his allegiance to the House and his sympathy for Arnold. “I know we all feel for anyone whom we’ve served with in this body that would be faced with this type of situation.” On the LRC’s internal investigation, he vigorously defended the status quo — the “proactive” policy that, he insisted, neither ignored nor failed to address the complaint. And yet the process apparently failed to protect the women or inhibit the accused. Boundaries were set that could not be enforced. Arnold supposedly ignored them with impunity.

He legitimized the disciplinary inaction, reminding representatives that they can be censured or expelled only by the authority of two-thirds of the House. Amid reminders that Arnold is presumed innocent until proven guilty, Stumbo said, “I don’t tolerate this type of conduct, and you don’t either. And this institution doesn’t.”

Any LRC employee who heard his next statement might have interpreted it as a warning: “I’m sorry for the allegations. I’m sorry that it involved a member of this body. But we, to protect the integrity of this body, must move forward in a responsible but fair manner.” Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-44, cited the difficulty of being responsible and fair where fear and favoritism fester. “As we encourage victims of sexual harassment to come forward,” she said, “we need to make sure this is a climate they feel comfortable and safe in coming forward — that they don’t feel their jobs are in jeopardy when they come forward to ask for some help.”

Policymakers should acknowledge that LRC minions should no longer be burdened with the impossible mission of probing their masters. Free the LRC from apparent conflicts. Public confidence requires no less.