Kentucky House speaker resigns post after texts with staffer

Kentucky’s Republican House speaker resigned his leadership position Sunday after acknowledging he settled sexual harassment claims from one of his staffers last month.

Jeff Hoover denied sexually harassing the staff member, but said he sent inappropriate text messages that were consensual. Hoover’s wife and two of his three daughters were in the room as he spoke.

“I engaged in banter that was consensual but make no mistake it was wrong on my part to do that. And for that, I am truly sorry,” Hoover said. “I want to reiterate that at no time, at no time did I engage in unwelcome or unwanted conduct of any kind.”

Thomas Clay, a Louisville attorney who represents the victim, said his client had “legitimate concerns about workplace conduct.”

“Our client was not coerced by anyone to resolve the matter and has been satisfied with the resolution,” Clay said. “We look forward to moving past this matter.”

Hoover said he received a letter on Oct. 17 from a lawyer whose client made allegations of sexual harassment against Hoover and others. Hoover did not identify the other people involved. However, multiple media outlets have identified them as three Republican committee chairmen: Brian Linder, Michael Meredith and Jim DeCesare. Ginger Wills, Hoover’s chief of staff, was also named.

A legislative official who has seen a copy of the letter confirmed the names. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because they were not authorized to talk about the letter.

Attempts to reach Linder, Meredith, DeCesare and Wills were unsuccessful. A news release from House GOP leadership said they are “removing implicated committee chairmen from their roles, pending the outcome of the investigation” but did not name them.

Hoover said everyone reached an agreement on Oct. 25. He said no one admitted wrongdoing and everyone agreed to keep the settlement secret because the victim was going to keep her job. But Wednesday evening, The Courier-Journal reported the settlement, based on anonymous sources, which eventually led to Hoover’s resignation.

Hoover said he will remain in the legislature. House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne will become the acting speaker.

“We are asking any member of the House Republican caucus who is or believes they will be implicated in this matter to inform this leadership team immediately if their name has not already surfaced in the public domain,” according to a statement attributed to Osborne and three other House GOP leaders. “We were blindsided but remain determined to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.”

The resignation comes amid a brutal legislative fight to change the state’s struggling public pension system. Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal would eventually end Kentucky’s pension system and replace it with a 401(k)-style retirement plan for state workers and public school teachers.

The bill has the votes in the Senate, but not the House. Hoover had said he would not vote for the bill without changes, and he has been critical of some of Bevin’s comments about teachers and other state workers.

“It’s fair to say I am not the favorite legislator of some in this capitol,” Hoover said without mentioning Bevin’s name. “I leave this speaker’s position with no animosity toward anyone. Not even those who have been working and conspiring for months for this result. Nor against those who have used this as an opportunity for personal selfish political gain.”

On Saturday afternoon, House Republican leaders announced they planned to hire a private law firm to investigate the allegations and would grant them the power to subpoena witnesses. A news release Sunday said the investigation will continue.

Hoover has been speaker since January, shortly after Republicans won a majority in the state House for the first time in nearly a century. The victory gave Republicans control of every state legislative chamber in the South.

“I have asked for and received forgiveness from God, my family, my wonderful wife, Karen, and my daughters,” Hoover said. “The decision today is what is best for Kentucky. And what is best for the House of representatives that I love and have spent 21 years here.”

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