FRANKFORT, Ky. — The secret sexual harassment settlement signed by Kentucky’s Republican House speaker could be investigated partly in secret.
Eight Republican lawmakers filed formal disciplinary charges against Jeff Hoover on Wednesday, alleging he sexually harassed a woman in his office and then used taxpayer resources to cover it up. They asked a special committee to recommend expelling Hoover from the House.
The special committee had its first meeting Friday. Chairman Jerry Miller said the group will likely decide in private whether to investigate the charges. Once that decision is made, he said the hearings would be public.
“Investigative committees need that secrecy,” Miller said.
Democrat Sannie Overly, a special committee member, noted that none of the Democrats on the panel agreed to hold closed meetings.
“No rules of procedure have been adopted, and we believe strongly that everything should be done in public,” she said. “Given the seriousness of the charges, this process must be as open and transparent as possible.”
Hoover has acknowledged he signed a settlement with the woman, but said it did not admit wrongdoing. He has denied sexual harassment, but said he did send inappropriate but consensual text messages to a woman who once worked for the House Republican Caucus, which Hoover controls. Those text messages, according to the charges filed with the House clerk, include asking the woman to send him a picture of her wearing a “black lace g string.”
In addition to Miller, the committee has six members: three Republicans and three Democrats. If they can’t agree, then Miller, a Republican, would cast the deciding vote. Four of the six members are women: two Republicans and two Democrats.
In November, after the settlement came to light, Hoover announced he would resign as speaker, but would keep his seat in the House.
But Tuesday, when the House convened for the first time since news broke of the sexual harassment settlement, Hoover did not resign. Instead, he temporarily stepped aside and appointed House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne to preside “until further notice.”
The disciplinary charges filed against Hoover in the House are unprecedented. The rules allowing such charges were approved Tuesday over the opposition of some Democrats and two Republicans.
Hoover is already under investigation by the Legislative Ethics Commission. That inquiry focuses on whether Hoover violated state ethics laws, primarily if he used money from political donors or registered lobbyists to make the payment. The House inquiry is broader. The charges allege Hoover “irreparably damaged the reputation of the House of Representatives.”
Hoover has said the disciplinary charges were politically motivated. He says Republican Phil Moffett, who is one of the eight lawmakers who filed the charges, has been gunning for his job.
Moffett has said Hoover “did what he did, and he should be held responsible for what he did. And I’m not the reason that happened. He is.”
The scandal has upended what is normally a quiet first week of the legislative session. Friday, the pastor of a local church opened the House session with prayer asking God to help lawmakers to “withstand any temptation,” but “accept earthly consequences” when they fail.
Osborne has filled in for Hoover as speaker, while Hoover sits in the back row of the chamber. Thursday night, Osborne spoke instead of Hoover before hundreds of people at an annual event sponsored by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Osborne said when he was first elected to the House, he told his wife he might one day be speaker.
“I bristled a little bit when she gave me her response, which was ‘when hell freezes over,'” Osborne said. “But given the weather and the news that we’ve seen this week, she may have been more the prophet than I possibly imagined.”
Schreiner reported from Lexington, Kentucky.