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Kentucky lawmakers seek return of sexual harassment payment

January 31, 2019
FILE - In this April 10, 2018 file photo, former Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover speaks with reporters in Frankfort, Ky. Three current and former Republican lawmakers who paid a woman $110,000 as part of a secret sexual harassment settlement are demanding she give the money back for violating a confidentiality agreement. Hoover, Michael Meredith and Jim DeCesare were among four Republican state House members who signed a secret sexual harassment settlement in 2017 with a woman who once worked for the House GOP caucus. (AP Photo/Adam Beam, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After paying a woman $110,000 in a secret sexual harassment settlement, three current and former Republican lawmakers in Kentucky are now demanding she give the money back — plus interest — for violating a confidentiality agreement.

The settlement, which toppled Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, came amid the #metoo movement that exposed the behavior of powerful men in business, government, entertainment and media — with many losing their jobs. But Thursday’s lawsuit was a rare instance of the accused pushing back.

Leslie Vose, an attorney for Hoover, state Rep. Michael Meredith and former state Rep. Jim DeCesare, says the lawmakers signed the settlement with the woman “in good faith.” It included a confidentiality agreement, instructing everyone when asked about the settlement to respond: ”‘I have no comment’ with no elaboration, or insinuation.”

But Vose argues the woman told two co-workers about the settlement, violating the agreement. Both workers — House GOP Communications Director Daisy Olivo and House Clerk Brad Metcalf — have since been fired, and both have filed whistleblower lawsuits alleging they were punished for reporting the harassment.

″(The woman) breached that agreement and ignored her legal obligation, and we think she should be held accountable,” Vose said in an email to The Associated Press. She said the lawmakers have “have sustained damage to their reputations, in continuing legal fees and costs, mental anguish, paid monies under a fraudulently induced settlement, and have not received any of the confidentiality that they were promised.”

The Associated Press is not naming the woman who made the allegations, at her request. Her attorney, Gail Langendorf, said she did not violate the agreement because the settlement is, or should have been, public record. The settlement was not publicly available until the Legislative Ethics Commission held a hearing about it in April 2018.

“This is nothing more than continued harassment of my client by the people she was sexually harassed by. It’s ridiculous,” Langendorf said.

Hoover and the other lawmakers paid the woman with their own money to keep the settlement out of court and out of the news. That type of confidential settlement was common in the years leading up to the #metoo movement, but unusual in that it involved elected officials and a public employee. Last year, lawmakers in at least 16 states proposed legislation to restrict the use of such agreements by private companies.

The Kentucky settlement was revealed by the Courier Journal. Hoover subsequently resigned as state House speaker and the other lawmakers lost their committee chairmanships. Since then, DeCesare did not run for re-election. Hoover was elected without opposition. And after Meredith easily defeated a Democratic opponent, the new House GOP leadership team restored him as chairman of the Local Government Committee.

Hoover is the only lawmaker to speak publicly about the settlement. He has denied sexually harassing the woman. He said he sent her inappropriate but consensual text messages. Those messages were revealed as part of an investigation by the Legislative Ethics Commission. In one exchange, the woman asked Hoover to come over one night. But Hoover declined, saying he couldn’t because he was her boss. He asked her to send a photo of herself in a “black lace g string” instead.

“Shortly after my client declined her inappropriate invitation, the texting between them ceased,” Vose said.

Hoover has repeatedly said his actions were not unwelcome. But in a deposition as part of the two whistleblower lawsuits, the woman said Hoover made more than 50 unwanted sexual advances toward her, including groping her in hallways and elevators at the state Capitol and touching her between her legs under the table at gatherings. The woman said those encounters were not consensual, and said she felt pressured because Hoover was her boss.

The deposition has been sealed, but the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Kentucky Public Radio obtained a copy of it and published its details earlier this month.

The lawsuit filed Thursday does not accuse the woman of leaking the deposition to the media. But it does accuse her attorney of giving a copy of the woman’s original demand letter to lawyers in the whistleblower case and filing copies of it with the court “without that letter having been subpoenaed.”

In an interview, Langendorf said she is trying to prevent the lawmakers’ attorneys from questioning her client as part of those lawsuits and filed the letter with the court as evidence.

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