Getting Organized – at the Oklahoma state House, boiling controversy over harassment settlement and related issues
Published: January 3rd, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY – The state House of Representatives meets today (Tuesday, January 3) for the customary Organizational Day that takes place every two years. Tomorrow (Wednesday, January 4), members of the House will begin a series of budget hearings focused on the five largest agencies.
Even as the House grapples with a projected $863 million revenue gap, this time of year (pre-session but after the holidays) might normally be marked by friendly exchanges among solons. But sparks are likely to fly this week – not only over the budget but also touching the resignation, then non-resignation, of state Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa.
In a December 29 press release, Speaker-elect Charles A. McCall, R-Atoka, announced that his first action as Speaker would be “to begin investigating the wrongful termination settlement agreement paid to a former employee in November out of House funds.”
McCall’s release said the study’s leaders will possess “special authority” to examine a legal settlement that came in a sexual harassment case involving Kirby. McCall said the House Rules Committee would look at “the allegations that led to the settlement and the House process for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment. In addition, the committee will review the authority of the House to use operational funds to settle claims and will also review all prior sexual harassment allegations against current House members.”
A legal claim against Rep. Kirby, filed more than a year ago, was settled November 22. Payment for the matter came from a janitorial account. That and other aspects of the settlement riled House Democrats.
McCall promised findings will be made public, and added, “There is simply no excuse for sexual harassment by lawmakers at the Capitol. The House of Representatives should be a safe and professional place to work, free of any form of discrimination or harassment. Voters have given us the privilege of representing them, and it is a high honor with special duties attached. Workplace misconduct by lawmakers will simply not be tolerated under my leadership.”
McCall has said state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette, Rules Committee chairman and Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the panel’s vice chairman, will guide the investigation.
House Democrats, not yet aiming rhetorical arrows at McCall, have saved their shots for former Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview.
One McCall staff release pointed out, “The House is unique in that it has no presiding officer between November 23, 2016 and Organizational Day on January 3, 2017, which is the first day the committee could be appointed by McCall to investigate the matter.”
On Monday, House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said, “I believe there are some questions that need to be answered, especially as we prepare to cast votes on Organizational Day.”
Calling for transparency, Inman and two colleagues said in a letter to McCall:
“It has been 12 days since the Democrats and the citizens of Oklahoma learned that Republican leadership in the Oklahoma House of Representatives used at least $44,500 in public funds to pay a claim that was filed by a former assistant to Republican legislators who alleged that she had been sexually harassed by one of the legislators. The terms and conditions of the settlement have not been released.
“It has been 10 days since the Democrats and the citizens of Oklahoma were informed that a Republican legislator had resigned from the House in the wake of the allegations. The legislator’s resignation has not been publicly released, and no information regarding how the resignation was handled has been publicly disclosed.
“It has been 5 days since the Democrats and the citizens of Oklahoma were informed that the Republican legislator attempted to withdraw his resignation. The document in which the attempt to withdraw the resignation has been publicly released, but does not answer questions regarding whether the legislator’s resignation or his attempt to withdraw his resignation were handled according to Oklahoma law.
“[Tuesday,] January 3, 2017, the Oklahoma House of Representatives will convene. The people of the State of Oklahoma deserve to know the facts surrounding the legislator’s resignation and subsequent attempt to withdraw his resignation.
“The last thing Oklahoma needs is 75 Republican ‘friends of Dan Kirby’ voting blindly to allow him to be seated and cast votes on the important issues that will come before the House on Organizational Day.
“In all fairness to Rep. Dan Kirby, if his resignation was not properly submitted or his actions in withdrawing his resignation were done in compliance with law, then there is no reason that he should not be seated.
“This matter should not be a partisan issue, and therefore the House Democrats urge the House Republicans to stand with them and demand transparency so that this issue may be resolved before we move forward.”
Concerning McCall’s announcement of a bipartisan committee to look into the $44,500 in settlement payments made to Hollie Anne Bishop (Kirby’s former assistant), Inman – joined by Reps. Emily Virgin of Norman and David Perryman of Chickasha – commended establishment of the investigation, but continued, “We wish that the Speaker-elect had instead opted to refer this matter to an independent, non-legislative committee comprised of private-sector citizens.”
Rep. Perryman (the new Minority Floor Leader) believes the Rules Committee is not the right venue: “We ask Speaker-elect McCall to appoint five House Republicans and five House Democrats to an ad hoc committee, and to appoint one Republican and one Democrat to co-chair the panel.”
Rep. Virgin (the new assistant minority floor leader) touted that as “modeled after the U.S. House Committee on Ethics. With both parties having equal representation, we can ensure there would be no question of political favoritism in the committee’s findings.”
After news reports about the legal settlement from reporter Nolan in for The Oklahoman, Kirby on Dec. 23 had said he intended to resign effective Dec. 31. He reversed that after Christmas, contending “my decision to resign was hasty and based upon bad advice. … I believe it is in the best interests of my constituents that I serve out the term that they graciously elected me to serve.”
NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.