Politics

A committee launched to investigate allegations that Gov. Matt Bevin illegally canceled a road project to punish a lawmaker for not switching political parties met for the first time Friday.

Nicholasville Democratic Rep. Russ Meyer claimed in August that Bevin froze the East Brannon Road project in Jessamine County as payback for not becoming a Republican late last year, a move that would have helped Republicans take control of the state House of Representatives.

Bevin maintains that the project was frozen because the proper right-of-way hadn’t been obtained by the state.

First reported by CNHI, Meyer released a voicemail that Bevin left on his phone in which the governor said he was “disappointed” by Meyer’s refusal to switch parties and that he wanted Meyer to understand how “you, your seat, your district” would be impacted.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, formed the committee to investigate the allegations.

During the hearing on Friday, Matt Stephens, general counsel for Stumbo, presented a timeline of events surrounding the letting and ultimate cancellation of the project.

According to Stephens’ report, the Brannon Road project was paused in March of this year, forcing the state to pay a $625,000 penalty to The Allen Company, the firm that the state had contracted to build the road.

Stephens presented internal Transportation Cabinet emails from the time that showed the state would have had to pay about $200,000 to resolve the right-of-way dispute, allowing the state to proceed with construction on Aug 1 with about $262,000 in damages — a $363,000 savings from the damages the state ultimately paid.

Stephens also said that the $625,000 “liquidated damages” penalty paid by the state was the result of a contract modification made on May 23 with The Allen Company, though the original contract stated that the Transportation Cabinet “will not pay for any claim for anticipated profits.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne, chair of the committee, said that the committee would corroborate the information by inviting officials to testify under oath about the events.

The governor’s office preempted Friday’s meeting by releasing emails that they say show Meyer knew there were problems with the project before it was finally approved at the end of former Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration.

One email dated Oct. 13, 2015, from Russ Romine, former executive adviser to the Transportation Cabinet secretary, to Kelly Baker, the cabinet’s chief engineer from the area, reads:

“Rep. Meyer has been keeping close tabs on the project as well. That said, he recognizes the need to clear [right-of-way] before letting the project. He also understands we made some last minute adjustments/accommodations, and those things don’t happen without impact to schedule.”

Blake Brickman, Bevin’s chief of staff, said the emails prove that Meyer knew there were complications that would delay the project.

“Meyer should immediately apologize to his constituents in Jessamine County and the Bevin Administration for lying to further his own political agenda,” Brickman said in a statement. “He should also call on Speaker Stumbo to call off his silly investigation and stop wasting taxpayer money on political theater less than three weeks before the elections.”

The panel has been panned by Republicans as a political ploy by Democrats who are trying to maintain their slim majority in the state House of Representatives during Nov. 8 elections.

But Rep. Wayne, the committee’s chair, defended the committee’s objectivity.

“I think it’s very important for us to not be biased, to really put our fairness hats on, our objectivity hats on and to make sure we’re looking at all the information that’s presented to us as clearly as possible and with good judgement,” Wayne said.

The committee is comprised of three Democrats and one Republican — Rep. Jim Stewart of Flat Lick.

Stewart said he hopes the committee address how the projects in the state’s comprehensive road plan are prioritized by the Transportation Cabinet.

“I’ve got to find out where this one compares to everybody else’s in the General Assembly,” Stewart said.“I think I should be able to ask the [Legislative Research Commission], they’re non-partisan, to get me a list of those road plans that this one has jumped.”

The committee’s next meeting will be Friday Oct. 28 in Frankfort.

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