OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers made a contentious return to work Tuesday, arguing about whether a colleague who tendered then rescinded his resignation should be allowed to take his seat.
Citing questions about the resignation of embattled Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, House Democrats tried unsuccessfully to block him from beginning a fifth term. Kirby has been under fire since allegations surfaced last month that he sexually harassed a former legislative assistant.
Democrats unanimously opposed a vote acknowledging Kirby's victory in the Nov. 8 election, but Republicans, who control the House majority, voted unanimously to accept it.
Kirby's former assistant said she was fired in November 2015 after reporting harassment to the House's human resources office and legislative attorneys, seeking a new assignment at the Capitol.
The former aide and her attorneys were quietly paid more than $44,000 to settle the issue, The Associated Press reported.
Kirby notified state leaders Dec. 23 of his plans to resign. Five days later, he'd changed his mind, telling leaders of his intent to rescind that resignation.
On Tuesday, as debate raged over his fitness to hold office, Kirby defended himself. He told colleagues he submitted his resignation during an emotional time after the death of his 25-year-old niece.
“I made my decision hastily to resign based upon some pressure, a lot of pressure,” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong. That is a promise I’m making to you right now.”
Kirby said he never fired his former employee, and the settlement was reached without his knowledge. “I found out about the settlement when everybody else did,” he said.
But his about-face had Democrats crying foul as lawmakers met formally for the first time since November’s general election and since the allegations against Kirby came to light.
Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, argued that resignations are irrevocable.
“No one wants to deprive a representative who’s been duly elected of the ability to be seated,” he said. “We want you to just delay the seating of a member until those facts are determined."
Calling the debate “unbelievable,” Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, accused Democrats of playing “party politics” and “trying to come after” a colleague.
“Give that member his due process rights before you start slinging grenades over to this side,” he said.
Newly elected Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said last week a House committee will investigate the settlement, which came from House funds, as well as the allegations against Kirby.
It will also look into any prior sexual harassment allegations against current House members though he did not say whether any exist, and how such allegations are handled.
“There is simply no excuse for sexual harassment by lawmakers at the Capitol,” McCall said in a statement last week. “The House of Representatives should be a safe and professional place to work, free of any form of discrimination or harassment.
"Voters have given us the privilege of representing them, and it is a high honor with special duties attached," he said. "Workplace misconduct by lawmakers will simply not be tolerated under my leadership.”
McCall did not weigh in during Tuesday's debate.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.