The cover-up always is worse than the crime

May 16, 2006 at 7:03 pm

After 12 months of secret grand-jury testimony, a spate of search-and-seizure raids in the Capitol and other state government buildings, a steady process of fifth-amendment takers, 13 controversial pardons, untold small fortunes in lawyers fees, and a zillion editorials, the principal combatants in the commonwealth’s humiliating merit-system scandal haven’t budged an iota. To the contrary, both have dug in their heels deeper than ever.

The Democrat, Attorney General Greg Stumbo, remains convinced the evidence proves that the Republican, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, has presided over an administration that’s crooked as a creek in Knott County, and Fletcher is whining louder than ever that Stumbo is motivated solely by partisan politics. The public has generally taken sides along party lines.

Both Stumbo and Fletcher are right, but one is more right than the other. The guy who deserves the most contempt is Fletcher — not so much because of the possible merit-system violations that triggered the scandal, but because of the cover-up that has perpetuated it and given Stumbo the impetus he needed to keep going.

Unwilling or unable to accept the lessons of Watergate — the main one being that the cover-up always is worse than the crime — Fletcher has only himself and his inner circle to blame for the fact that he now is destined to be remembered forever as one of only three governors in the commonwealth’s history to be indicted for possible criminal misdemeanors.

At the outset, Fletcher needed only to take the position that members of his management team probably made some hiring and firing mistakes due to inexperience and overzealousness. He needed only to promise that the violators would be weeded out and that he would redouble his efforts to ensure that the letter of the merit-system law be strictly observed and enforced.

He needed only to apologize, for heaven’s sake.

Instead, the members of his inner circle convinced him to deny any knowledge of wrongdoing, go on the offensive against Stumbo and generally engage in a policy of stonewalling and obstruction.

They probably prayed about it, considering that most of them, like Fletcher, are fundamentalist Christians. These are the same guys who convinced the governor to push for inserting intelligent design and the Ten Commandments into public-school classrooms.

Too bad they didn’t spend their Bible-study time reading “All The President’s Men.” Unimpressed by their nattering, the attorney general’s staff picked up the gauntlet and convinced the grand jury to indict 13 individuals, including Dick Murgatroyd, the governor’s deputy chief of staff; Republican state chairman Darrell Brock; and Transportation Cabinet Secretary Bill Nighbert.

Fletcher countered that by pardoning all of them for past or future transgressions in a rotunda press conference that came off like a bizarre pep rally. And that began a series of gaffes and blunders that turned Fletcher into a cartoon character. He couldn’t even muster enough support to have Brock fired.

To be fair, of course, Fletcher was only following the Watergate model. A big part of it calls for paying lip service to the concept of transparency while, in fact, stonewalling and stalling at every turn. It’s popular among some Fletcher apologists to point their fingers at the Governor’s experienced, arrogant circle of advisors. But at some point, the buck stops with the Governor. He cannot blame others if he lacks the courage of his convictions — or if his convictions are seriously flawed.

Incredibly, the state’s two most powerful elected Democratic leaders have so far been as circumspect as Mitch McConnell about the scandal in Frankfort. Ben Chandler’s refusal to pile on is understandable. He lost to Fletcher in the gubernatorial race, then replaced him in the U.S. House. What can he say except, “I told you so”?

But Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson is a different matter. He’s hamstrung by his decision to align himself with Arena Authority Chairman Jim Host and Fletcher behind building the arena at the LG&E site instead of the old Water Company site for which he lobbied for months. It’s tough to be stridently critical of someone with whom you’re in bed.

The big losers, as usual, are the taxpayers and state employees. Now, more than ever, Fletcher will be consumed with his defense instead of the business of the people. Speculation about his guilt or innocence will be as constant and widespread as speculation about his future.

But remember, it’s his own fault. Instead of nipping the controversy in the bud, he played right into Stumbo’s eager hands. The cover-up is worse than the crime. The Bible, King Tricky Dick version, tells us so.

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