Kennedy Kent Barred After Requesting Documents Of Police Ignoring Child Sexual Abuse Of Black Children
Rep Kennedy Kent Barred From Meeting By Democratic Minority Caucus Legal Counsel Sarah Cherry

Rep Kennedy Kent Barred From Caucus Meeting By Democratic Minority Caucus Legal Counsel Sarah Cherry

Rep Bernadine Kennedy Kent publicly announced Thursday she notified the House Speaker she will not return to the Statehouse, or her legislative office at the Riffe Center, until her exclusion from the democratic caucus and her complaint against two employees is addressed.

Rep Kennedy Kent, a black woman with a track record of exposing police misconduct and fraud, was excluded from the Ohio House Democratic caucus last year after Representative Stephanie Howse filed a written complaint against Rep Kennedy Kent alleging her electronic signature was forged on a public records request to the mayor regarding evidence that police ignored reports of child sexual abuse of black girls.

Now, a year later, as Howse’s criminal complaint against Rep Kennedy Kent has been resolved with a determination of no wrongdoing, Rep Kennedy Kent wants her rights as an elected Democrat acknowledged and her privileges restored to her office including admittance to caucus meetings, access to legal services and staff, and training for her legislative aid.

But when she attempted to enter a committee room 20 minutes before a Democratic Caucus meeting started, Wednesday 22 May, she said her path was blocked and she was forcibly pushed back by Minority Chief of Staff Andy DiPalma and Minority Caucus Legal Counsel Sarah Cherry. Cherry told her, according to an anonymous source who heard the comment, “I can't let you in. I’m sure if you had been white this wouldn’t have happened.”

Although Rep Kennedy Kent didn’t hear the comment, as multiple people were talking to her at the same time, she said afterwards that she had heard that Legal Counsel Cherry said the same thing about her Legislative Aide (LA)--that if she were white she wouldn’t have her LA services taken away, and be shunned from democratic functions. Legal Counsel Cherry therefore is acknowledging the policy she is enforcing is racist.

Minority Caucus Leader Emilia Sykes, and Assistant Minority Leader Kristin Boggs both declined to comment for this article.

No records showing procedure for ousting

On May 24, 2019, this author requested House Minority Leader Sykes produce under Ohio Revised Code, “all documentation you have on record regarding Bernadine Kennedy Kent being expelled from the Ohio Democratic Caucus. This may include...correspondence.” A reply came from the Minority Caucus Legal Counsel Cherry who said, “We do not have any records responsive to your request.”

The lack of records raises questions of the legitimacy of removing Rep Kennedy Kent from the Democratic Caucus. As of publication, Rep Kennedy Kent is still listed as a member on the Ohio Democratic Caucus website almost exactly a year after the vote to take away her legislative services and ban her from the caucus.

Similarly, the US House Democrats are under pressure from advocacy groups to fulfill their promises to make the party transparent. An April letter to US House Democrats signed by 10 advocacy groups including the ACLU said, “Public access empowers understanding of legislative branch activities, provides essential details on how you govern, and exemplifies your commitment to open government.”

With no record of the vote recorded to oust Rep Kennedy Kent, there is a real question of whether proper procedures were followed, or whether there was any legal basis for punishing a representative in this way. The Ohio Democratic Party constitution has a mechanism for censuring members, which would have involved collecting 500 signatures, and going through a specific process to “provide for a fair hearing to all parties. All parties shall be permitted to present briefs, evidence, and witnesses.”

But according to Rep Kennedy Kent, she was not provided any due process to present her side before a vote was rushed through to expel her on allegations now determined false by law enforcement. Rep Kennedy Kent said, “you’re punishing my constituents and nullifying the people’s vote. I have done nothing wrong. I haven’t violated any caucus rule or anything.”

Two girls abused and police do nothing

Rep Kennedy Kent reported to the police in 2013 she had been told by two sisters ages six and three that they were being sexually and physically abused. She even provided a recorded conversation in which the mother acknowledged the abuse and declined to take action. In response Rep Kennedy Kent’s reports of child abuse, police officer Mark Gardener, a police Lieutenant at the time, said in a court video recorded statement her reports of child abuse were going directly to junk mail.

Rep Kennedy Kent did not give up on the children. They were finally removed almost three years later by police after being found in what police described as “deplorable and harmful” conditions. Rep Kennedy Kent has maintained the belief that the child victims remain at risk because their reported sexual and physical abuse was never properly investigated by police.  

When she was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, she engaged the support of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus (OLBC). She sent a public records request to the mayor after she discussed the records request in a meeting of OLBC, believing she had the vote of the group to send the joint letter.

Ohio Legislative Black Caucus (OLBC) president reversed course on investigation into police ignoring physical and sexaul abuse of black children

Rep Kennedy Kent said OLBC President Rep Howse instructed her via email “to take the lead on the matter and that the OLBC members would support her mission” so she attached the OLBC signatures and emailed the information request to the mayor, but once the letter was sent, she said Howse just flipped out and began sending vitriol and threatening emails to her. “We had been advocating for these victims for over a year. I would have never thought she would have had a problem with this,” Rep Kennedy Kent said.

Rep Kennedy Kent said Rep Howse demanded a retraction of the letter and threatened her office if the letter was not retracted, “‘You’ll find out what happens to your office as an Ohio Representative.’” Rep Kennedy Kent refused to retract the letter as she believed she had legitimately gotten authorization from OLBC members on the letter before sending it.

She said the Democratic Caucus Leader at the time, Rep Fred Strahorn, reversed his position and told her the mayor was his friend. But Rep Kennedy Kent said, “I’m not the kind of person who is going to stop advocating for sexual abused children to get justice just because you’re friends with the mayor, but that is what he wanted me to do.”  

Rep Kennedy Kent resigned from the OLBC on April 15, 2018. “I had thought the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus would be more about making things better for Ohio’s disenfranchised,” Rep Kennedy Kent said explaining why she left. After that, Rep Howse filed a complaint with the former Speaker of the House regarding her signature being used without her permission.

About a month later a vote to remove her from the caucus was put forward by Rep Tavia Galonski, who had “previously said my letter to the Columbus Mayor was ‘excellent and thorough,’” according to Rep Kennedy Kent.

Nearly a full three months later, Rep Howse filed a complaint with Ohio State Highway Patrol alleging forgery of her electronic signature. Rep Howse confirmed to the author she filed this complaint against Rep Kennedy Kent, but refused to answer any further questions regarding the issue, including whether she shared Rep Kennedy Kent’s concerns of alleged child sexual abuse, and the police response.

Rep Kennedy Kent succeeds despite being sidelined by Democratic Party

Despite being barred from the caucus, Rep Kennedy Kent introduced House bill 137 in the statehouse which passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. The bill made all law enforcement personnel mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse and neglect and became a law in Ohio March 19, 2019. Ohio was one of the only states in the nation that did not have such a requirement. “What is best for Ohio’s children will remain a priority of my office,'' said Rep Kennedy Kent.

Rep Kennedy Kent was reelected with 84.5% of the vote in November 2018 despite news reports describing her ousting from the Ohio Democratic Caucus. The Democratic voters in her district essentially gave her a mandate to continue her advocacy for children, women, and minorities while holding public officials accountable.

Rep Kennedy Kent succeeds in advocating for children, women, and minorities

Rep Kennedy Kent has been a social advocate for over 16 years, long before she was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, and identified by Columbus Alive’s People to Watch, as a “Fearless politician” who “refuses to ‘sit down and shut up.’”

In 2006, she and her husband James Whitaker exposed widespread fraud of a federally funded No Child Left Behind school tutor program. For these efforts which exposed the theft of federal money, she was put on a Columbus Division of Police “chronic complainer” list of people to ignore.

The existence of the chronic complainer list is controversial, and has been criticized by Rep Kennedy Kent and local community leaders, but is currently still in place within the Columbus Division of Police even though it goes against law enforcement best practices.

Matthew Loux, faculty at American Military University with over 20 years in law enforcement, and 10 years teaching policing, wrote for the university publication, In Public Safety, the report, “Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse.” Loux says, “It is imperative that the officer not make any assumptions whether the report is valid. Officers must remain impartial and collect all the facts to determine if a crime has indeed occurred...Do not be inflammatory towards the reporter. Remain neutral and use sound interview practices. The reporter is a critical witness so work to establish a rapport with this person to help reduce awkwardness and allow for an exchange of information.”

Rep Kennedy Kent got justice for her constituent Diona Clark, a black domestic violence survivor shot twice in the left torso 14 years ago, and forgotten by Columbus police. Clark’s ex, Larry Belcher, was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday May 29, 2019. Initially the police didn’t charge Belcher with attempted murder, or any related charge, and the statute of limitations expired. Rep Kennedy Kent set up a meeting with Clark and top police and public safety officials after weeks of advocacy and letter writing.

A police official apologized to Clark for police allowing the statute of limitations to expire, but explained nothing could be done. Then Rep Kennedy Kent brought up the possibility of kidnapping charges, which has a longer statute of limitations. The police said they would look into it, and then filed those charges which were pled down to abduction, since the police had destroyed all the evidence in the case.

Rep Kennedy Kent said, “What length are you willing to go to destroy me so the stories of Diona Clark, and the stories of children being sexually abused are not heard? Is that the point?”