For anyone who has said Kentucky was one of the most corrupt states in the U.S., new data has been released to back up that argument.
Last month, the Public Administration Review released a study that measured corruption levels in all 50 states by focusing on illegal uses of public funds. Kentucky was determined the number nine most corrupt state.
But the Bluegrass was not alone. Many other southern and eastern states like Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama were ranked among the top 10 in terms of corruption; Mississippi was rated the worst. Kentucky’s Midwest neighbor, Illinois, was the fourth most corrupt state.
The top 10 least corrupt states were mostly from the West. Oregon was found least corrupt, followed by Washington, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Vermont, Utah, New Hampshire, Colorado and Kansas.
John L. Mikesell of Indiana University and Cheol Liu from City University of Hong Kong compiled data from 1997 to 2008, measuring corruption levels by the number of public officials in each state that were convicted for federal violations of corruption laws, as published by the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mikesell and Liu defined corruption in two ways: the misuse of public office for private gain (Mauro 1995) and as crimes involving abuses of the public trust by government officials (USDOJ 2002).
As it goes, many political scandals in Kentucky are based upon misusing public funds for private gains, whether it be for vote-buying, kickbacks or personal means.
Michael W. Hail, an associate professor of government at Morehead State University and director of the Masters of Public Administration program, said he thinks Kentucky’s corruption traces back to the public education system.
He said while other states require government classes in middle school and high school, Kentucky does not.
“Or they require some form of a government class in school, but it deals more with the history of government, not the functional side of government,” he explained.
He also said corruption in some parts of the state has become so common that it is no longer investigated, becoming part of a norm instead of an offense.
“Some people in Kentucky, I think, sort of have resigned themselves into thinking that’s the way politics is. But, no, that is corruption,” Hail said.
Not only does Hail think voters need to be more educated, but he said public officials should have a higher academic pedigree in administration or politics, too.
“The more they are educated in their field and profession, and practices in the profession, the better job they will do in handling the public’s money,” he said.
Since the study only examines levels of corruption from 1997-2008, here is a brief look at some of the state’s scandals that may have attributed to the high levels of corruption found in the study.
This scandal from the 1990s was unearthed by a federal investigation involving the Kentucky legislature’s Business Organizations and Professions committee, and horse racing.
Up to 15 state legislators were taken into custody, some being dragged straight off the house floor in cuffs, by the feds for selling votes to lobbyists.
New legislative restraints have been placed on lawmakers since BOPTrot, such as restricted interaction between them and lobbyists, and requirements for full financial disclosures from both parties, but it does not erase the scandal these rules were inspired by.
With a nationally acclaimed basketball team at the University of Kentucky, news of Richie Farmer’s corruption during his time as the state’s commissioner of agriculture traveled far and wide.
Essentially, it’s a story of a basketball star so beloved by the people of the state turning around and misusing their money for private gains.
Farmer served as commissioner from 2004-11. Federal prosecutors sought and secured the maximum sentence of 27-months for his crimes, to which he pleaded guilty to last year.
He may have been cited in USA Today as telling Kentuckians he was, “truly, truly sorry,” but the reality is media uncovered spending abuses and illegal hiring procedures by Farmer and his office.
When current commissioner James Comer took over Farmer’s office the following year, he asked State Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen to perform a special audit for the department, which served as the ultimate trigger into a federal investigation.
Farmer went through a lengthy legal battle and was taken to jail earlier this year.
This scandal may be relevant to the study explained above, since it takes into account expenditures each year from 1997-08, which includes most of the time Farmer spent in office.
Corruption, some locally, has continued even after the study was completed. Here are some examples:
Conley and misuse of Morgan FEMA money
Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley and his community had their world flipped upside down by a devastating tornado that struck West Liberty in the spring of 2012.
Federal Emergency Management Agency sent money to Morgan County for disaster relief, a welcomed gesture by those who had possessions and lives ripped apart by the storm.
But Conley is being accused of misusing this money to pay for PBTHNOJJ Construction of Salyersville to remove debris from West Liberty and other areas of the county. According to the indictment, Conley misused his position to ensure the firm was overpaid for the work.
The indictment also alleges Conley was paid kickbacks, including cash payments from proceeds of the contracts he awarded PBTHNOJJ.
Court records now show that Kenneth Lee and Ruth L. Gambill, owners of the contracting firm, will plead guilty to the kickback scheme, which also involved $1.1 million in contracts through Conley, mostly for small bridge and culvert projects.
Of course, all this happened after the survey time.
While buying votes is not the same as directly dipping into state funds, it is still a serious crime and an example of Kentucky’s most notorious form of corruption.
Vote-buying can be categorized as anything a politician does to win votes, whether it be paying off citizens or even bribery through services.
These types of scandals seem to be more prominent amongst judge-executive candidates or school system superintendents.
For example, Arch Turner pleaded guilty in federal court to a vote-buying scheme in 2012. That year, he went into federal court as the current superintendent of Breathitt County Schools, but he admitted he was guilty of vote-buying during the 2010 primary.
Former Elliott County Judge-Executive David Blair was removed from office by the feds and convicted of theft in office and abusing public trust during the May primary in 2010.
How did Blair choose to buy votes? He was graveling private driveways.
If this sound familiar, it is because graveling or paving driveways in exchange for votes is one of the most common forms of vote-buying in Kentucky.
Ned Pillersdorf, Blair’s attorney, told a local television station, “Unfortunately, it had become part of the culture here.”
LANA BELLAMY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2653.