FRANKFORT, KY (WAVE) - Kentucky's House voted Monday to give the Legislative Ethics Commission broader power after the panel declined to punish a former state lawmaker accused of sexually harassing Capitol staffers.
The House voted 99-0 in favor of the legislation, which allows the commission to fine lawmakers for acts they commit while in office, even after they step down. Former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, resigned last year after three legislative staffers said he harassed them at work.
The measure requires that women and minorities serve on the Ethics Commission. It also limits commission members' absences. Last week, with three members absent and another seat on the panel vacant, the commission failed to impose fines on Arnold.
"This is a wake up call to me and hopefully other legislators that we have to hold our colleagues accountable," said Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, who brought forward the ethics amendment.
Two of Arnold's accusers watched the House debate the ethics changes Monday.
"It seems like more people are on board, they're fighting for the same thing we were," said Cassaundra Cooper, who said Arnold touched her inappropriately at work. "We're getting that notice out to the public that things aren't right at your state Capitol. There's a war going on here."
Republicans slammed Democrats for ignoring the Arnold case during the first three months of the legislative session, only acting once the public outcry became louder.
"If the public has no confidence in what we're doing, then we're in trouble," Republican Leader Jeff Hoover said.
On the first day of the session, Democrats disbanded a committee tasked with investigating the Arnold matter before it made any recommendations.
"Real political courage is to step up and try to make things better," said Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville. "Political courage is not to hope it goes away."
The ethics changes, now part of Senate Bill 234, move to the Senate. Senate President Robert Stivers said late Monday he hadn't seen the measure.
The issue has also become part of the U.S. Senate race. Over the weekend, Sen. Mitch McConnell called on the Ethics Commission to hear the Arnold case for a second time. His opponent, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, followed with a similar statement Monday.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who said the evidence against Arnold is "incontrovertible," also said that the commission should reopen the case.
The decision is up to commission members. The panel's next scheduled meeting is May 13.
Arnold resigned soon after the complaints became public and has claimed he is mentally ill.
His three accusers are also suing him in Franklin County Circuit Court.
"It's bad when you come to work and you're always looking over your shoulder - who's around, who's going to touch you, say something to you," Cooper said. "It's nice to get the peace of mind back again."