The sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Kentucky politics for the past two months will sound all too familiar to anyone who has even passively followed the #MeToo movement.
It started in November, when the Courier-Journal reported that Rep. Jeff Hoover, the Republican speaker of Kentucky’s House of Representatives, had secretly settled a sexual harassment claim with a female staff member.
The woman, who has not been publicly identified, exchanged sexually suggestive text messages with Hoover after a colleague told her it would help advance her career, according to the Courier-Journal. The details are thin, but there was talk of lace underwear and lewd photos, according to news reports.
At some point, the woman had second thoughts about the conversations and accused Hoover of creating a hostile work environment. Hoover paid her an undisclosed financial settlement, which reportedly bore the signatures of three other Republican lawmakers and Hoover’s chief of staff.
News of the agreement sowed chaos in at the capitol in Frankfort. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called on Hoover and anyone else involved to resign. Investigations were launched. Some lawmakers initiated expulsion proceedings against Hoover.
On Monday, after vacillating for weeks about whether to step down, Hoover announced in a bitter and defiant speech from the House floor that he would give up his role as speaker but hang onto his seat in the legislature.
In remarks lasting more than 20 minutes, Hoover portrayed himself as the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy to oust him from power, accusing the governor and fellow lawmakers of lying about his actions.
With his wife of 26 years watching from the balcony, he acknowledged having traded inappropriate texts with the staff member, but denied any misconduct, saying that although the messages were ill-advised, they were consensual.
“What’s the one thing you’re most ashamed of that you have done in the past five years?” Hoover asked the chamber. “What if you woke up one morning and that one thing that you’re sitting there thinking about was on the front page of every newspaper in this state?”
His voice quavered as he explained how the scandal had affected him and his family, saying that he had lost 33 pounds in four weeks because he couldn’t eat.
“I laid on my couch day after day after day in the fetal position,” he said. “I got down on the floor when no one was at home, crying uncontrollably and screaming out to almighty God to help me through this situation and to help my family and my daughters. I went into depression. I went into isolation.”
In defying calls to quit the House entirely, Hoover stands as something of an exception among the dozens of powerful men in government, media and entertainment who have been toppled by sexual misconduct claims in recent months. Many have been fired or forced to resign as a growing wave of women, and some men, have come forward with allegations of rape, assault and harassment.
Hoover isn’t the only person in the Kentucky legislature to have faced such claims. In December, Kentucky Rep. Dan Johnson, a Republican, committed suicide after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published allegations that he molested a teenage girl in the basement of a church where he served as pastor. Johnson was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound a day after he denied the report in a Facebook post.
Hoover received some applause during his speech Monday. But Kentucky Rep. Stan Lee, a Republican, faulted him for focusing on his personal vendettas.
“I just think it’s sad and disappointing that he continues to make this about him and how people are supposedly conspiring against him. And he appears to be wanting to take the focus off the initial act, which he describes as a mistake,” Lee told the Associated Press. “But there was more to that act than just that mistake. There was a settlement and a confidentiality agreement that a lot of people characterize as a coverup.”
The settlement with the staff member, who worked for the House Republican Caucus, was signed in late October, after an attorney for the woman sent Hoover a letter alleging sexual harassment. The allegations reportedly dated to 2016. Within days, someone started taunting Hoover about the agreement in tweets from an anonymous Twitter account. The Courier-Journal revealed the settlement later that week.
According to the Courier-Journal and other news outlets, one of Hoover’s texts to the staff member read, “If you decided to send a photo of the black lace g string, I won’t share. For my eyes only.”
Shortly after the scandal broke, Hoover promised to resign from the House. But when the new legislative session began last week, he said he was reconsidering the move at the urging of some of his allies.
In his remarks Monday, Hoover claimed Bevin had defamed him by suggesting that he had had sexual contact with the staff member.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I will tell you and I will tell this governor, those are lies from the deepest pits of hell.”
He also vowed to get revenge on people in the legislature he said had privately betrayed him.
“It hurts to the very core of your soul,” he said. “And I promise to the people of Kentucky that I will fight with everything I have for as long as it takes to expose all of those people that were involved regardless of who they are or the position they hold.”
Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne (R) accepted Hoover’s resignation Monday. He will preside over the House until the end of the year.
“This has been a very difficult time, personally and professionally, for all of us,” Osborne told the Associated Press. “We will get through it and we will do the work of the people.”
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