2013 Frankfort whistle-blowers speak out - “I was scared of losing my job”
Four years before a wave of sexual misconduct charges began to take down politicians and celebrities, Versailles native Yolanda Costner and co-worker Cassaundra Cooper were at the center of a similar scandal in Frankfort.
Costner and Cooper were longtime employees of the LRC who filed ethics charges and a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment and a hostile workplace in 2013. They said they were touched inappropriately and stalked by state Rep. John Arnold, whose wife later said that he may have been suffering from dementia.
Costner said after they filed their complaints, state Rep. Jim Gooch tossed a pair of panties on a table where she and Cooper were sitting during the 2013 Southern Legislative Conference in Mobile, Ala.
“We didn’t know if he knew that we had already filed with the LRC against John Arnold at that point – if he was doing that to be hateful towards us. It was inappropriate, anyway, and he admitted it …” Costner said.
Gooch had also been accused of making inappropriate comments to Cooper in the past, which Costner said the LRC never addressed. Gooch, a Democrat who represents a district in Western Kentucky, switched parties in late 2015 and is still in office.
“He never had to answer for doing that. They ignored it,” Costner said.
Their cases were settled out of court, with Costner receiving $93,323 and Cooper $86,573. (Nicole Cusic, another LRC employee who made allegations against another state lawmaker, received $84,397.) Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, and then-LRC Executive Director Bobby Sherman later resigned over the matter.
Costner, a 1986 graduate of Woodford County High School, said she is saddened by the dozens of charges of sexual misconduct against politicians and other prominent people.
“When this happened to me, I was scared to come forward. I told my then-legislative leader what had happened, and he kind of joked it off. … I was scared of losing my job. That was always a fear – of losing my job. And that’s the same thing for most of these women today,” Costner said.
Ultimately, Costner said, she did lose her job, but was able to retire with 25 years of government service. Both Costner and Cooper were “non-merit” employees, meaning that they could essentially be fired without cause. Cooper continues to work for the LRC, but said she was “pretty much devastated by the whole event,” and that the post-lawsuit work environment is different.
“Not just the lawmakers, but other people within LRC … Just some of the looks, the comments, and I feel like it has hurt me with my career at LRC,” Cooper said.
“What we really wanted in the beginning, when it all happened, and most victims want, they want the harassment, the assault, the touching, unwelcome advances to stop,” Costner said. “At one time, I loved my job, I loved coming to work. But it hurt that my bosses and even my agency - the LRC, which I loved did not support me. …”
The present Frankfort scandal that led to the resignation of Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover and involves three other state lawmakers, along with similar claims against national politicians and others, bring back bad memories for both women.
Allegations of unwanted advances by 16 women against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump angered Cooper, especially on election night.
“I was furious and sick to my stomach at the same time. Everybody wants to say, ‘We should have respect for this office,’ and I think it’s only when it’s their candidate that (voters) want to hold them to such a level, but when it’s not their candidate, it’s okay to talk about it,” Cooper said. “I want to see people just stand up and call it for what it is. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, Independent, what your ethnicity is, what your sexual orientation is … your religion, any of that. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong, and for people to continue to support (Trump and Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who’s been accused of inappropriate or illegal behavior by nine women), it sickens me …”
Costner said, “I’m just disappointed that what we went through, we thought that it was going to make the workplace better and it seemed that it did for a few months.
Then with this (the nationwide controversy over sexual misconduct), it seems that business is back to usual, and what had happened to us was just kind of forgotten.”
Costner said she suffered from post-traumatic stress for two years after being fired and has struggled to find employment since then, believing that employers are leery about hiring someone involved in a lawsuit that received national attention.
“I think people, when they Google your name, and it comes up … I get lots of (web) pages and backgrounds and stories about me complaining about sexual harassment, and being a whistle-blower at my agency, and also being fired,” Costner said.
In response to a follow-up question, Costner said while she’d intended to work at the LRC for two more years and is frustrated by her inability to find another job, she is well and living a peaceful life with her family.
“God’s provided everything. I’ve been blessed,” Costner said.
Until he began working on this story, McGary had not discussed this case with either of them. The incidents they describe occurred years after McGary left the Legislative Research Commission (LRC).