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Ethics Commission dismisses complaints against Bevin over purchase of Anchorage home

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Gov. Matt Bevin was unanimously cleared Thursday of complaints that he violated state ethics. (Photo from Kentucky Today)

By TOM LATEK
Kentucky Today

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission has dismissed two complaints against Gov. Matt Bevin, saying they contained nothing that would suggest Kentucky’s top-elected official had violated state ethics laws.

Kathryn Gabhart, the commission’s executive director, informed Bevin of the decision on Thursday in letters that were also forward to the two men who filed the complaints – Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owens and Common Cause Kentucky Executive Director Richard Beliles.

Commission members voted July 17 to dismiss the complaints, which alleged the governor had run afoul of ethics laws by purchasing a home in Anchorage for $1.6 million from a supporter who he had appointed to a government panel that oversees the state retirement system.

The Commission found that Neal Ramsey, who sold the home to Bevin, did not fall into the category of lobbyist, which would preclude accepting a gift of $25 or more by Bevin, and that nothing in the Ethics Code prevents two people from engaging in a financial transaction or giving each other gifts. They did note that should Ramsey come up for reappointment while Bevin is in office, the governor should delegate the authority to reappoint him to the lieutenant governor.
The complaint also stated Bevin improperly revised a 2008 executive order that gives the attorney general and auditor input into the naming of members of the Ethics Commission, but members held that governors have the power to change previous executive orders.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Amanda Stamper, had contended all along that the complaints were frivolous and politically motivated.

Gabhart’s letter pointed out that the Ethics Commission’s vote to summarily dismiss Beliles’ complaint was unanimous – noteworthy because two of the five members were appointees of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Bevin has been sharply at odds with Beshear and his son, Attorney General Andy Beshear, since he took office. One of Andy Beshear’s top assistants had asked the Ethics Commission whether the attorney general’s office could investigate Bevin’s home purchase. The answer was a qualified “no.”

The Ethics Commission concluded in an opinion released earlier this week that Andy Beshear could investigate only if he would have to affirm that he won’t run for governor in the next election or support anyone else who does.

The opinion puts the politically ambitious Beshear in an awkward position: He can either give up his gubernatorial aspirations for now or acknowledge he plans to run, which would cast a cloud of skepticism over a year’s worth of criticisms of Bevin.

Common Cause filed its ethics complaint after Beshear promised he would donate money to the organization that had been given to his campaign by one of his former staffers who is serving nearly six years in prison for accepting kickbacks. The former staffer, Tim Longmeyer, was working for Steve Beshear’s administration when he received the kickbacks, which were used for illegal campaign contributions to Democratic candidates and causes.

Among Longmeyer’s contributions, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, was $1,000 to Andy Beshear’s campaign for attorney general. That’s the money Beshear promised to give to Common Cause of Kentucky.

Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown had asked the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion on whether Beshear’s office could investigate Bevin.

The opinion issued Monday mirrored two previous ones, issued in 2003 and 2006, that held it would be a conflict of interest for a sitting attorney general, who hasn’t ruled out a run for governor, to investigate potential rivals.

The Ethics Commission also said the attorney general also can’t avoid a conflict of interest by recusing himself from the investigation by implementing “fire walls” to ensure he wasn’t personally engaged in the investigation.

The opinion held that the attorney general could contract with a third party to conduct an investigation “as long as the report of the third-party investigator is given to an individual with no conflicts of interest in the matter.”

“If you are willing to declare affirmatively that you will not run for the office of governor in the 2019 election cycle nor will you assist others in their run against the sitting governor during the 2019 election cycle, then you will not have a conflict of interest or be perceived as using your office of attorney general to further yours or others political interest,” the Ethics Commission said in the written opinion.

The Ethics Commission also said Beshear would risk violating state ethics laws if he conducts a probe without saying he will not run for governor in 2019.

“Therefore, we recommend you refer the investigation to another law enforcement entity over which you have no jurisdiction,” the Ethics Commission said.

Tom Latek can be reached at tom.latek@kentuckytoday.com

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