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May 16, 2006

What will the neighbors think?

Any game show contestant takes the audience along for a suspenseful ride in the time leading up to the announcement of the grand prize. Imagine the stiff-grinning host cutting the tension in a booming voice, “You’ve won a free all-expenses-paid trip to Louisville!”What could the winner imagine of this prize — especially if the trip is not specifically scheduled around the time of the Kentucky Derby?Carmen Hickerson, spokesperson for Greater Louisville Inc., thinks about this, especially when she surveys studies that indicate people don’t have much of an impression of Louisville at all. As Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville might just be lumped in with the rest of the state, she says.Given the recent indictment of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the results of the commonwealth’s branding effort — “Kentucky: Unbridled Spirit” — could take on new meaning: a state executive office’s unrestrained efforts in meddling with state hiring laws.Since last Thursday a few people have analogized the state’s slogan with Gov. Fletcher’s current situation and a few e-mail messages whizzed through the World Wide Web lamenting his indictment on three misdemeanors in state hiring practices and bemoaning what that means for the reputation of our fair commonwealth.Well, not much.“We’re already the butt of so many national jokes,” says state Sen. Tim Shaughnessey (D-Louisville).And the occasion certainly couldn’t downgrade Kentucky much in the eyes of any cynical American viewing the current landscape of political scandals among governors. The scandal emerging from Kentucky’s merit system investigation is just one among many in the United States in which governors and/or their staffs have pushed for influence in ostensibly illegitimate ways.• The administration of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is contesting allegation that it fired longtime employees to replace them with Republicans and governor devotees.• The administration of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is embroiled in a federal investigation of state hiring practices amid state employees reporting that they felt they coerced to hire job applicants referred by the governor’s office or state lawmakers.• Also in Illinois, last month former Gov. George Ryan (R) was convicted in a federal corruption case for racketeering, mail fraud, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. Specifically, he was found guilty of steering contracts worth millions of dollars to friends in return for payments and vacations and for pressuring employees for political contributions and campaign work.• Last year in Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft (R) pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges for not reporting meals, golf outings and gifts in violation of state ethics laws.• In 2003, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (R) resigned after amidst allegations that he maneuvered contracts to allies for gifts.Here in Kentucky, the indictment of Gov. Fletcher was reasonably predictable, given the investigation into the hiring practices in the transportation department that began last year. “This is really, in the great scheme of things, pretty minimal stuff,” says Phil Laemmle, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville.The nature of the political patronage charges against Fletcher isn’t astonishing or new in politics, says Joseph Gershtenson, director of the Eastern Kentucky University Center for Kentucky History and Politics. Throughout history, politicians have used creative methods to increase their power base, but these days more politicians are getting caught.He credits the changes in technology (i.e. e-mail messages) with making communications easier to document. “It’s never been easier to track,” he says.The increase in political scandals also emanates from the rise of what he calls “politics by other means,” specifically the increasing use of special prosecutors and exposing personal and embarrassing information about political rivals. All of this, he adds, has become a staple for the news media.While Fletcher will surely suffer politically from this situation, which gives his opponents ammunition, any ill effects on the commonwealth won’t likely come in the form of reputation but from the time a trial will take the governor from doing “governor-type stuff,” Laemmle says. The indictment’s timing, coming after the General Assembly, minimizes the impact, he adds.But when it comes to the Kentucky’s repute, Hickerson says Fletcher’s indictment hasn’t registered with GLI members and people out of state who write GLI.“We’ve gotten more responses for the governor’s position on gay marriage,” she says, paring it with Gov. Fletcher’s decision last month to allow the University of the Cumberlands to receive $11 million in state funding for a pharmacy school after it expelled a student for admitting he was gay.She says Louisville’s, and Kentucky’s, reputation has its strongest effect when leading companies in the state are looking to recruit top candidates to work and live here. “People can live anywhere they want these days and some issue can make it much more difficult to recruit top talent,” she says. Contact the writer at ekramer@leoweekly.com