The first action of Oklahoma's new Speaker of the House, Charles McCall, was to launch an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against sitting lawmakers. One of those allegations, filed by a legislative assistant against Rep. Dan Kirby in 2015, reportedly resulted in what some have described as a "secret" settlement payment of $44,500 to the former assistant and her attorneys.
Some of the outrage among the public and other lawmakers over this revelation has been directed at the person who authorized that payment: former House Speaker Jeff Hickman.
Hickman spoke on the record with News 9 about the situation Wednesday.
The Republican from Fairview was House Speaker for most of the past three legislative sessions. He termed out last year. In fact, his last day in office, in November, came just a few days after he signed off on the controversial settlement.
"It's unfortunate the House was put in a position that it felt like it had to settle a claim," Rep. Hickman stated in the interview, "but that's the situation we found ourselves in."
Hickman said there is a lot that people don't know about the case, which is appropriate, since this was a personnel matter. But he said, now that the case has been publicized, it's important that people understand that the claim that was settled was over wrongful termination, not sexual harassment. He said the former assistant was fired with cause, for something unrelated to her sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Kirby, R-Tulsa.
"Obviously, the House took [the sexual harassment allegation] very seriously and investigated it immediately," said Hickman.
After three separate investigations (by the House, EEOC, and state AG) into the assistant's claim all concluded there had been no wrong-doing by Kirby, Hickman said House attorneys advised him that going to trial on the woman's wrongful termination complaint would be inexpensive, because it would be over quickly -- and the House would win.
But, Hickman said, before that could happen, there was an another development related to Rep. Kirby.
"There were some issues that came to light with an additional employee," said Hickman, "and based on an investigation into that matter, which was ongoing as we were moving forward with [the original] case, the attorneys suggested...that it would be better to settle the case than have it go forward at that point."
Hickman said he immediately transferred the employee to another office and forbade Kirby from having another legislative assistant, as long as he was Speaker. But, at that point, with regard to the wrongful termination case, his options had become limited.
"It is frustrating to settle a claim and pay out money for a situation in which you feel very confident you would have prevailed," Hickman stated, "but it became obvious that it was going to be much more expensive to take that case to trial and to see it through."
Hickman believes going to trial would have cost taxpayers approximately $150,000. Settling the case for just over $44,000, he said, saved taxpayers about $100,000.
He said he understands how people who don't know the full story might be angry, so he is not upset about the investigation now being conducted by the House Rules Committee.
Hickman said one person who did know what was going on -- at least generally -- is the new Speaker. He said they had multiple conversations about it during the course of the year last year.
"He would have had no information about the terms of the settlement -- the dollar amount or any of the terms of settlement due to the confidentiality agreement that we signed with the former employee," said Hickman, "but obviously would have been aware of the investigation and the fact that it had been resolved, the matter had been settled."
A spokesman for Speaker McCall, R-Atoka, released this statement Wednesday about his knowledge of the case:
"I am not aware of any public statement from Speaker McCall where he said he learned of the existence of the settlement agreement from [the] original story in The Oklahoman. He was, however, unaware of any of the details of the settlement until [that] story broke. Speaker McCall still does not know all the details of the settlement nor does he know all the facts Speaker Hickman had when he made his decision to approve the settlement agreement, and he will not be second guessing any decisions made by Speaker Hickman on behalf of the House."
Hickman supports the current investigation, although he believes the committee could conduct more of it in open session, as opposed to executive session. He insisted the settlement was not a secret action, as the payment was posted on the state web site as soon it was finalized, as are all House payments.
Interestingly, as of this afternoon, Hickman said he had not been asked by the committee to testify before them.