Investigations

When former Kentucky State Fair Board CEO and President Jason Rittenberry announced his resignation last September, he offered to stay on as CEO through Dec. 31.

He didn’t stay. But the Fair Board kept paying him anyway.

Records and interviews show that Rittenberry was paid $100,000 as a consultant during those four months — his full salary, even though someone else had taken over the day-to-day operations. A Fair Board official said paying Rittenberry through the end of the year was the right thing to do for the CEO, who was hired less than a year before he announced his resignation.

When asked what he did during his time as a consultant, Rittenberry said, “Not a lot, actually.”

Fair Board chair Mark Lynn took over Rittenberry’s day-to-day responsibilities as interim CEO in September. Lynn said his work as interim CEO was unpaid. But that didn’t bring any cost savings, since the Fair Board continued to pay Rittenberry $25,000 a month.

Lynn disagreed with Rittenberry’s assessment of his workload, saying that Rittenberry continued to work during those four months and speak to staff. Lynn acknowledged he personally didn’t interact with Rittenberry on a daily basis.

Kentucky Venues spokesman Cody Patterson declined to be interviewed, and agreed only to respond to specific, emailed questions. He confirmed that Rittenberry’s resignation was effective Dec. 31. When asked why Rittenberry stayed on the payroll and what work he completed, Patterson didn’t address Rittenberry directly.

He instead responded in an email that the board “is excited for the days ahead at Kentucky Venues under the leadership of [current Fair Board CEO] David Beck and has full confidence in his business acumen as well as his commitment to Kentucky.”

Pay Among Highest In State

Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet

Jason Rittenberry

Rittenberry was hired as Fair Board CEO in November 2016 and given a 20-month contract through June 2018. The third CEO in the last six years, Rittenberry replaced previous CEO Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe, who resigned after more than three years to move closer to his family.

Rittenberry’s $300,000 annual salary was $50,000 higher than his predecessor — and it towers in comparison to the rest of the state government. Rittenberry was the second highest-paid employee (excluding state universities and colleges).

Rittenberry earned more than twice as much as Gov. Matt Bevin to oversee the annual state fair, as well as the Kentucky Exposition Center and the Kentucky International Convention Center, a review of the state salary database shows.

But Rittenberry wasn’t a state employee. He was a contractor, a point Rittenberry said media coverage of his salary never mentions.

Rittenberry, who now works in the private sector as a managing partner with Motorsports Strategy Group, noted he was responsible for paying for his own insurance and retirement and was ineligible for state benefits.

“I’ve got to pay my own taxes out of that. I’ve got to buy my own insurance out of that. I’ve got to pay my own retirement out of that,” Rittenberry said. “So you take all that out of it, and, you know, it’s not that much money.”

Lynn, the former interim CEO and current chairman of the Fair Board, told KyCIR that state law mandates the Fair Board’s CEO work as an independent contractor rather than a state employee. Lynn said he’s worked with four CEOs and, as far as he knows, they have all been independent contractors.

Lynn defended the decision to continue to pay Rittenberry, saying it was a courtesy to let Rittenberry finish out his contract. But his contract went through June 30, 2018, six months after the board stopped paying him.

“We finished out the year end; we did everything we could do with Mr. Rittenberry that we thought was the right and best thing to do,” Lynn said.

Although Lynn signed Rittenberry’s contract, he said he wasn’t involved in the particulars of negotiating it or familiar with the terms.

Rittenberry said he left his job to return to his family, who never relocated to Kentucky. He said he didn’t really enjoy the public sector, either.

“I may not be the best fit for working in state government and bureaucracy,” Rittenberry said. “I struggled with that a lot.”

Rittenberry’s contract would have awarded him a $150,000 payment if he were terminated without cause from his role as CEO. The contract also included a $30,000 annual performance bonus and travel and relocation pay.

Kate Howard | wfpl.org

Excerpt from Jason Rittenberry’s contract

The perks came amid the Fair Board’s struggle to maintain a balanced budget. The board has relied on increasing state appropriations: nearly $30 million over the last seven years, according to the board’s annual reports and the state budgets.

Lynn said those appropriations are needed to help fund a multi-million dollar agency. The fair makes a positive impact on Kentucky’s economy, and that’s more important to the Fair Board than making money for the fair board itself, Lynn said.

Before First Fair, A Bonus

Lynn said Rittenberry “did great things” for the Fair Board during his tenure as CEO.

During his time as CEO, Rittenberry led the rebranding of the Kentucky State Fair Board into Kentucky Venues and made changes to the fair.

The board appeared to agree: it awarded Rittenberry his annual bonus last July, even before his first fair kicked off.

Rittenberry’s successor, David Beck, likewise makes $300,000 and has a $30,000 annual performance initiative. Beck began his job this July.

Lynn said he thinks the salary is appropriate for the position when one considers the job function and similar jobs throughout the country.

Beck and Rittenberry’s contracts, while similar, do contain a significant change. Beck’s early termination fee is $50,000, or two months of his base salary, instead of Rittenberry’s $150,000.

Beck’s contract also contains a stipulation that, if he is let go with cause, he will not be paid the early termination fee. Rittenberry’s contract did not specify what happened if he was fired with cause.

Lynn said the board is ready to operate with Beck as the new CEO.

“We’ve got Mr. Beck,” Lynn said. “We’re moving forward.”