Kentucky to investigate worker accused of sexual harassment

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky officials have launched a second sexual harassment investigation of a corrections officer whose alleged behavior led to a $1.6 million jury verdict earlier this year.

The state Personnel Board authorized the investigation of Correctional Sgt. Stephen Harper on Monday after Personnel Cabinet Secretary Thomas Stephens requested it .

Harper was accused by four women of sexual harassment in 2013. He settled a lawsuit privately with the women, according to attorney Joe Childers who represents two of them. Childers said details of the settlement were confidential.

A lawsuit against the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet went to trial, and a jury awarded the women $1.6 million earlier this year. State officials have asked a judge to set aside that verdict and order a new trial. That request is pending.

Meanwhile, Harper still works for the state. In 2013, prison officials conducted their own investigation of the allegations, but found they were unsubstantiated. Stephens, however, questioned the "quality of that investigation," which is why he asked for a new one to be conducted by the Personnel Board.

"My clients are relieved and hope that this investigation will be a thorough investigation unlike the previous investigations," Childers said.

The lawsuit alleges Harper masturbated in front of one woman, exposed himself to them, attempted to force them to touch him and tried to rape one woman, according to the Lexington Herald Leader .

Stephens said Harper still works for the state because he is protected by the state's merit system. State workers are classified as merit or non-merit. Merit employees have certain protections. Non-merit employees are political appointments and can be fired at any time for any reason.

It appears Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's administration fired one non-merit employee last month for questionable behavior toward women. Winston Bennett, a former University of Kentucky basketball player, was fired as director of the Labor Cabinet's Division of Apprenticeship after being on the job for 10 weeks.

The Bevin administration would not say why Bennett was fired. But the Courier-Journal reported he sent flirtatious emails to female colleagues and subordinates. In one email, he told a woman she was "too hot to trot. Especially on those skirt and dress days, lips stick matching. Lord have mercy."

Bevin seemed to reference that incident in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

"From the moment I became aware of it they were gone within minutes. Minutes. It was less than five minutes that I found out about it that they were let go. Because I had that authority," he said.

Asked if he was talking about Bennett, Bevin said: "It doesn't matter. The fact is, you can connect the dots on that. It will continue to be the case, as soon as I am aware of stuff."

Bevin has called for the resignation of four GOP lawmakers who secretly settled a sexual harassment claim made by a former staff member of the House Republican Caucus. But he has not called for the resignation of Republican Rep. Dan Johnson, who has been accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in 2013.

Bevin told WHAS radio on Tuesday he has "no idea" if the allegations against Johnson are true, but said "there is a tremendous amount of smoke there" and would be a "another stain on the Legislature."

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