Politics

Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has released a report alleging “endemic” coercion of state employees to make campaign contributions under former Gov. Steve Beshear.

The investigation is based on interviews with 16 political appointees — who remained anonymous — claiming that officials pressured them into make contributions to Democratic political candidates, primarily to the campaigns of gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway and Attorney General Andy Beshear.

The probe, conducted by Indianapolis law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, construes that the practice was widespread across state government.

“While our investigation provides only a sampling of the improper campaign fundraising practices that appear to have been pervasive during former Gov. Beshear’s administration, we believe that there are likely numerous additional employees stationed in various offices, departments, and divisions who also received or were witness to improper solicitations for campaign contributions,” the investigation states.

Candidates and political parties can’t specifically target state employees to make campaign donations under state law.

The report alleges that supervisors not only solicited donations from state employees but made “veiled threats of job termination” if they didn’t make donations.

The 16 state employees interviewed for the report declined to be named out of a desire to not implicate former colleagues, fear of retaliation and reluctance to discuss how contributions would impact personal finances, according to the report.

The Bevin administration awarded a $500,000 contract for the firm to conduct the investigation.

Beshear issued a statement after the report was released, calling it a “political hatchet job.”

“What a joke, and what a waste of taxpayers’ money. Gov. Bevin hired the general counsel for the Kentucky Republican Party Central Committee, using a half-million dollars lifted from taxpayers’ pockets, to try to tarnish my administration and my son, Attorney General Andy Beshear. But after almost a year – with access to 33,000 state workers, mind you – they came up with 16 secret and unnamed employees making vague allegations against six other employees, two of whom are dead and unable to defend themselves. And then the authors of this report cleverly thought that by sprinkling words like ‘systematic,’ ‘pattern,’ ‘pervasive’ and ‘endemic’ in the report they could hoodwink voters into thinking there was widespread corruption. Again, what a joke. We knew from the start this was a political hatchet job, and this report proves it. They all ought to be charged with theft of public money.

Everybody knows that from the beginning of my administration I set high standards for ethics and made it absolutely clear that every staff member was expected to abide by those standards. Anyone, including the 16 unnamed employees, who ever felt any pressure to give a campaign donation has always had an appropriate place to have their allegations investigated – the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. And it wouldn’t have cost $500,000 in taxpayer money to do so.

“After wasting the first year of his administration looking backward, it’s time for Gov. Bevin to focus on improving Kentucky’s future.”

Bevin has been locked in an ongoing feud with former Gov. Beshear and his son, the attorney general, since taking office.

The former governor has been an outspoken critic against Bevin’s efforts to scale back or repeal elements of the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky.

And the younger Beshear has challenged Bevin’s authority to cut already-enacted higher education budgets and overhaul the University of Louisville Board of Trustees.

The report details previously published Beshear-era scandals dealing with former Personnel Cabinet Secretary Tim Longmeyer — who pleaded guilty to bribery charges last year and was sentenced to 72 months in federal prison — and former deputy secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, who was fined $5,000 for pressuring workers to make political donations.

A KyCIR investigation from last year found that non-merit employees under Longmeyer routinely donated to Democrats.

Daniel Lowry, spokesman from the Kentucky Democratic Party, said the governor was wasting money on the investigation.

“This report is politics as usual for Gov. Bevin, wasting half a million dollars of taxpayer dollars on playing politics for no reason other than to try to tarnish the legacy of the previous administration,” Lowry said.

“I was a non-merit employee before and during the 2015 election period, and nobody in the Beshear administration ever threatened me or any other non-merits to my knowledge,” added Lowry, former communications director of the Labor Cabinet.

Read the full report here.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.