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Kentucky reeling from sexual assault, harassment accusations

Associated Press

As sexual assault and harassment allegations sweep through statehouses around the country, no place has been impacted quite like Kentucky: A state forced to confront its past salacious behavior in the midst of an historic transition to Republican rule.

Kentucky's GOP House Speaker resigned his leadership position after acknowledging he secretly settled a sexual harassment claim with a woman in his office. Three other Republican lawmakers lost their committee chairmanships for being part of the same settlement. And a freshman Republican lawmaker who was part of that new political order killed himself Wednesday after facing allegations that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl in his basement.

It's not just Republicans. In July, a recording surfaced detailing how Julian Carroll, a Democratic state senator and former governor, had propositioned a young man for sex and, according to the man, groped him. Carroll denied the allegations and police didn't file any charges.

Three years ago, taxpayers paid $400,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against three Democratic lawmakers.

Despite the turmoil, just one lawmaker has resigned: Democrat John Arnold stepped down in 2013 when he was accused of inappropriately touching female employees. His lawyer later said he was in the early stages of dementia. Everyone else has stayed, preventing the dark cloud of scandal from dissipating and exposing a rift between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP leaders.

Some, including Bevin, have called for resignations while others have urged caution until investigations can be completed.

"We have some of the biggest issues ever facing our state from a financial standpoint and this takes our focus away from the job we're needing to do," said Republican state Rep. Jim DuPlessis.

DuPlessis used to sit by Republican lawmaker Dan Johnson, who killed himself following accusations he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl.

Other statehouses have been rocked by scandal. In California, two Democratic lawmakers have resigned and another is facing pressure to amid allegations of repeated misconduct. Their names came to light after nearly 150 women who work in or around the Legislature wrote an open letter in mid-October outlining pervasive sexual harassment in the Capitol and a culture that protects it.

In Ohio, Republican state Rep. Wesley Goodman resigned after acknowledging "inappropriate behavior" with a person in his office.

Republican state Rep. Phil Moffett of Kentucky said the allegations will spur change in the legislature.

"There isn't a single person in the private sector that does not know that they cannot have an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate," he said. "They know that will be their last day on the job when they do that."

House Republicans hired a law firm to investigate the allegations against the House Speaker, but the report was inconclusive. Lawmakers met with investigators but did not provide a copy of the settlement.

Acting House Speaker David Osborne asked the Legislative Ethics Committee to use its subpoena power to get a copy of the settlement and find out if any part of it was paid for with money from political donors or lobbyists.

And Osborne has put together a committee of lawmakers to come up with a formal system for reporting and investigating workplace complaints.

Jeff Hoover, the former House Speaker, denied sexual harassment but said he did send inappropriate but consensual text messages. It's unclear what the other three Republican lawmakers involved in the settlement are accused of doing.

The scandals in Kentucky are compounded by a budget crisis, with economists projecting a $156 million dollar deficit by June of next year and a public pension system that is at least $44 billion short of the money needed to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years.

"What we all thought was going to be a really difficult legislative session has just become even more challenging," said Les Fugate, a veteran lobbyist. "We didn't think that was possible."

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Associated Press reporter Kathleen Ronayne contributed reporting from Sacramento, California.

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