Kentucky Speaker of the House Jeff Hoover, voice often choked with emotion, resigned from his leadership post at a press conference in the State Capitol. Hoover said he plans to continue representing his constituency in the Kentucky House' 83rd legislative district. 05 November 2017
David R. Lutman/Special to The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky House Republican employee alleges that she was retaliated against for reporting an "inappropriate sexual relationship" between then-House Speaker Jeff Hoover and a woman in his office and that GOP leaders used money from "prominent campaign donors" to secretly settle the woman's harassment claim.  

Communications Director Daisy Olivo also says in a whistleblower lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin Circuit Court that she had her duties taken away after disclosing the details of the relationship to the Legislative Research Commission's general counsel and human resources director, and that she has faced ongoing retaliation. 

Olivo's lawsuit contradicts Hoover and investigators retained by House leadership about the nature of the relationship and how the settlement was paid.

The woman who accused Hoover of sexual harassment shared a timeline with Olivo of her "physical, sexual encounters" with Hoover, as well as three years' worth of text messages with him, according to the lawsuit. Courier Journal is not identifying the woman because she says she's the victim of sexual harassment.

Claims made in a lawsuit represent only one side of the case.

Hoover, a Jamestown Republican, admitted making mistakes but denied any sexual relations or harassment when he resigned as speaker.

His apology and resignation came four days after Courier Journal broke news that Hoover had entered into a secret settlement with a woman who worked on his staff.

“… As inappropriate as those text messages were, I want to reiterate that at no time – at no time – did I engage in unwelcome or unwanted conduct of any kind. And at no time were there ever any sexual relations,” Hoover said at a hastily called news conference Nov. 5.

An investigation report released Friday by the Middleton Reutlinger law firm retained by House leadership said investigators were unaware of any allegation of “an inappropriate physical, sexual relationship" involving any of the parties to the confidential settlement.

It also said current and former staff members reported working conditions free from “the taint of any sexual material or other inappropriate content.”

Additionally, the investigators found no public or other inappropriate funds were used by Hoover or others named in the settlement. Their report stressed that some key witnesses declined to be interviewed and therefore recommended the investigation be continued by the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has the power to subpoena documents.

House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, who has been managing House GOP leadership since Hoover's resignation, sent the investigation to the commission on Friday. Part of his complaint asks the commission to investigate whether there was any violation of the Kentucky Code of Legislative Ethics. Two sections in particular prohibit lawmakers from obtaining financial gain through their official position and from knowingly accepting compensation for performance of legislative duties.

Olivo's lawsuit explicitly states that the staff member who accused Hoover of harassment told Olivo that the settlement was paid "off the public record with private funds pooled from prominent campaign donors."

An FBI spokesman referred back to the bureau's original statement in response to a question Monday.

"The FBI received information regarding sexual harassment and retaliation claims made by employees working in the state capitol. We are reviewing that information and the allegations surrounding it to determine whether or not there is a violation of federal law," it said.

Hoover and the three other House Republicans who were parties to the settlement – Reps. Jim DeCesare of Rockfield, Brian Linder of Dry Ridge and Michael Meredith of Brownsville – remain in office. The other lawmakers have largely avoided public comment on the matter, and none has spoken with Courier Journal.

Hoover’s chief of staff, Ginger Wills, was also named in the settlement. She did not immediately respond to a Courier Journal request for comment Monday and has declined repeated requests previously.

On Oct. 26, Olivo was told to stop discussing the sexual harassment alleged by the staff member and to not file a report about a hostile work environment, the lawsuit said. The message was delivered by Hoover's accuser herself, on behalf of attorneys, the lawsuit alleges.

The staff member added that Hoover and Wills said Olivo "would lose her job."

The same day, Olivo raised concerns about the staff member's well-being to the Legislative Research Commission's general counsel and human resources director. Olivo told them the staffer feared physical harm after she entered the settlement "under 'duress,' " according to the lawsuit.

Wills told Olivo the next day to direct all employees with harassment concerns to her.

Olivo then met with the general counsel and human resources director for about three hours on Nov. 1 and reported the relationship between Hoover and the staff member, alleged a hostile work environment created by Wills and discussed the secret settlement. 

On Nov. 2, Wills sent Olivo an email relieving her of handling media inquiries.

The email "effectively eliminated Plaintiff's job duties, as she was the Communications director and in charge of media relations." Since then, the lawsuit says, Olivo has been ostracized from her job duties and subject to retaliatory actions.

Those actions include attempts at intimidation and a lack of cooperation from other staff members within the legislature.

In one instance, state Rep. John "Bam" Carney, a Campbellsville Republican, attempted to "surreptitiously take a photo of (Olivo) and a co-worker," the suit said.

Carney did not immediately return phone messages left at his Frankfort office or his cell phone.

In another, Olivo says she met with House Budget Director Frank Willey to discuss pension legislation and the lack of information sent to communications staff members.

Willey told Olivo he would not send her information "based on her intention to 'twist facts' and 'pit people against one another,' " the lawsuit said. Willey declined to comment when reached by phone Monday.

The Middleton Reutlinger report noted significant divisions within the Republican staff but attributed them to "political factions, personality issues and other causes."

The lawsuit also alleges Wills was aware of the relationship between Hoover and the staff member and that she intended to "create a path to terminate" the staff member.

In February, Olivo says she and another communications staffer met with Wills, who asked them explicitly if the woman and Hoover were in a sexual relationship.

Wills went on to say, according to the suit, that she believed the woman was "the aggressor" and "had forced the Speaker into a 'submissive' relationship, which was damaging Rep. Hoover's ability to do his job." 

Olivo says in the suit she objected to removing the staff member, but Wills said the staff member eventually "would need to be relieved of her duties and that a personnel case should be built against her for her behavior."

In May, the staff member left for four months of leave related to her military duty. Wills told Olivo to keep the staff member "happy" until then, adding she intended to terminate her before or shortly after she returned, according to the lawsuit.

While she was gone, the staff member came to believe there was an environment of sexual harassment created by Hoover, the lawsuit said.

After she informed Olivo of that belief, and her concern about returning to work, Olivo confronted Hoover himself on Sept. 5 about the work environment.

She also alerted Wills and the Republican caucus' general counsel, Laura Hendrix. 

Contributing: Tom Loftus. Follow Darcy Costello on Twitter: @dctello.