Lawmakers should make sexual harassment rules uniform

Published 1:27 pm Thursday, November 9, 2017


Lexington Herald-Leader

When people in positions of power put themselves above the law, or even above the rules that apply to everyone else, they’re inviting a fall.

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Just ask Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, who resigned under pressure as Kentucky House speaker after his confidential settlement of a sexual harassment claim became public.

Hoover showed terrible judgment by exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a female staffer, who later threatened him with a lawsuit.

It’s impossible to say whether anything would be different if Republican leaders had afforded their partisan staff the same recourse from sexual harassment as the legislature’s non-partisan employees.

But, certainly, lawmakers of both parties should now insist that the same rules apply to partisan and non-partisan staff alike. The rules should immediately be made uniform, no exceptions.

Only 23 of the 138 legislative seats are held by women. That’s 17 percent which is less even than the 25 percent nationally. It’s hardly a secret that, freed from the constraints of their hometowns, some male lawmakers behave toward women in ways they wouldn’t want their constituents (or spouses) to see.

Only a few years ago, when Democrats controlled the House, they had their own sexual harassment scandal. In response, new protections were put in place for the legislature’s employees. But legislative leaders exempted their own offices, so the employees they hire directly to work as partisan appointees lack the same recourse and protections as non-partisan employees.

Non-partisan employees can lodge sexual harassment complaints with their supervisor or second-in-command, and then, if they’re unsatisfied, with the director of the Legislative Research Commission who oversees legislative staff. The LRC director is hired directly by legislative leaders. So there is another process when a sexual harassment complaint is against a lawmaker: It goes to the LRC’s assistant director for human resources and professional development, which better insulates the process from political pressures.

The partisan staffer who accused Hoover also accused three other Republican lawmakers and Hoover’s chief of staff, Ginger Wills, of sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment.

If House Republican leaders had not exempted themselves from the rule, the staffer’s complaint could have been heard by someone other than those she was accusing. The responses of those she accused would have been heard and considered. Instead, the employee went to a lawyer and Hoover entered into a settlement last month. The amount and source of any payment have not been revealed.

After Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called for anyone who has settled a sexual harassment claim to resign, Hoover said he would step down as speaker but stay in the legislature. Hoover has challenged Bevin on occasion, most recently over overhauling public pensions. Without being specific, Hoover said some had been “working and conspiring” for months to achieve his downfall. That may be true, but Hoover has only himself to blame for giving his rivals this failure to exploit.