Bluegrass Politics: The Dems’ ethical demons

While we’ve become fixated on the ethical and legal morass that Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been mired in during much of his term, it seems many of the Democratic wannabes hoping to knock off Fletcher also find themselves in ethical hot water. Finding a scandal-free slate seems like slim pickings, at least based on recent headlines.

Last week’s announcement by State Treasurer Jonathan Miller (D) and Jefferson County Attorney Irv Maze (D) that they will seek the Democratic nomination for governor and lieutenant governor was significant on two counts: because they were the first slate to announce, but also because both are well regarded for the ethical conduct in office.

The same cannot be said for a number of likely primary challengers, beginning with the second slate to announce: former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D).

Last week, the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission found that “probable cause” existed to further pursue an ethics investigation against Mongiardo for his involvement with the federal political action committee DANPAC, a violation of which is a Class D felony. The complaint, filed by the Republican Party of Kentucky, argued that state law bars lawmakers from forming committees beyond their campaign funds. Initially, Mongiardo called the complaint a “political ploy,” but by week’s end he called a press conference accepting responsibility for the mistake.

Besides serving as fodder for a concise attack ad against the Beshear-Mongiardo ticket on ethics — which should be any Democratic slate’s strong suit in a general election race against Fletcher — Mongiardo’s initial response, that the complaint was political, smacked of the very tone Fletcher took, and the public loathed, when confronted with allegations of illegal hiring.

Meanwhile, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission refused to overturn an earlier opinion that it would be a potential conflict for Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) to run for governor following his lengthy prosecution of Gov. Fletcher.

Unlike the Mongiardo ruling, however, the Stumbo decision did reek of retaliatory politics (and sketchy constitutional standing) by a commission whose members were largely appointed by Fletcher himself and whose opinions carry no legal weight. But in a world of 30-second sound bites, the Stumbo ruling could have implications in a gubernatorial campaign, although Stumbo has not indicated his plans for next year.

Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry (D) — who insists he’s running for governor — still finds dark clouds hovering over him on a number of fronts. First, he continues to be dogged by questions over the federal investigation into Medicaid/Medicare over-billing for surgeries he claimed to have performed. Eventually, Henry ponied up $162,000 to the federal government to settle the matter, but he’s continued to maintain it was all politically motivated.

Meanwhile, two people often described as “Henry campaign staffers” recently resigned, fueling allegations that Henry has been secretly funding work toward a gubernatorial campaign without filing the required candidacy papers. That includes questions over whether he evaded state election law by tapping into an old U.S. Senate campaign account to pay staff and other expenses.

Noteworthy was a disclosure on the Kentucky Democratic Party’s most recent campaign finance report — for the $10,000 purchase of its voter file. The payee was listed simply as “Henry Exploratory Committee.” Problematic is that exploratory gubernatorial campaigns no longer exist in Kentucky, and the only known exploratory option among federal campaigns is at the presidential level.

And finally, it looks as if Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford is looking at another run for governor, following his 2003 failed effort in which he spent $8 million of his own money but then dropped out of the Democratic primary just days before the election. Lunsford later resurfaced during the general election to endorse Ernie Fletcher for governor and has since made political contributions to the Republican Party of Kentucky and to U.S. Rep. Anne Northup’s (R) campaign as recently as this May. (Disclosure: I managed Ben Chandler’s campaign against Fletcher.)

But Lunsford is perhaps best known for running the nursing home giant Vencor, which after a lengthy federal investigation for “fraudulent billings” eventually agreed to a $130 million settlement with the government.
So while the current governor looks to be on political life support, with his own Republican Party leading the effort to pull the plug, the Democrats are battling their own ethical demons. National voters slammed the door on the Republicans’ culture of corruption by refusing to elect any of their ethically-challenged congressional candidates. One wonders whether they’re ready to do so again, a little closer to home.

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