Corruption’s perception is Kentucky’s reality

Published 7:24 pm Friday, September 27, 2019


Guest columnist

Two studies in 2014 sought to determine which states were most corrupt.

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One done by researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University used the standard methodology of analyzing criminal convictions of thousands of public officials over three decades.

Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics took a different approach by surveying hundreds of reporters who cover state politics to determine their perceptions of corruption in their states.

Both studies clearly show Kentucky has a serious corruption problem, reinforcing the late conservative political guru Lee Atwater’s astute conclusion: perception is reality.

While this column was being drafted, media outlets reported that Kentucky State Police seized a computer from the office of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s facing accusations of misusing voter registration data to spy on perceived political enemies, including employees, a federal judge and ethics-commission members investigating those allegations.

The raid occurred days after Grimes’ father Jerry Lundergan, former head of the Kentucky Democratic Party, was convicted along with party operative Dale Emmons of scheming to make illegal contributions to Grimes’ failed campaign in 2014 to unseat U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Ironically, that’s the same year both reports referenced earlier were released, including the Harvard report on perceptions showing that not only is Kentucky one of America’s most-corrupt states but that corruption spreads across all three branches of state government.

Grimes’ office also is being investigated by an independent counsel appointed by Democratic Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear, whose own former top deputy got a 70-month prison term in a kickback-and-bribery scheme.

And while Beshear wasn’t implicated, it’s understandable how citizens lose faith in government and conclude that the primary reason public servants run for office is to enrich themselves.

That, of course, isn’t reality.

Most apples in the barrel aren’t bad.

Still, the perception remains and continues to get reinforced with testimony like that during Lundergan’s recent trial in which Grimes’ campaign manager in her 2015 race for Secretary of State testified that Lundergan left a bag with $20,000 in cash and a $25,000 check on his couch.

Jury members probably felt like they needed showers after seeing a photo of the sleazy cash in the form of bills bundled in $2,000 currency bands.

But the corruption isn’t limited to Democratic operatives, as demonstrated by Republican Richie Farmer elected in 2004 as agriculture commissioner and was handed a 27-month prison sentence after being found guilty of a record 42 ethics violations, including hiring his girlfriend to a $50,000-per-year job for which she didn’t even have to show up.

Farmer was elected along with Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky’s first GOP governor in more than three decades, who himself was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of illegally awarding state jobs to political supporters.

There’s also concern about hiring and compensation decisions for friends along with state plane trips during current GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration.

Such scenarios — especially when combined with a lack of transparency — do little to convince Kentuckians that a vigorous commitment exists to reduce corruption.

We’ve certainly progressed beyond the practices of Thomas Page, who, as Kentucky’s second State Auditor of Public Accounts during the Civil War, directed sheriffs to either deliver the monies they collected from local tax jurisdictions to him directly or, if they wanted to save him a trip, deposit the embezzled funds into his personal bank.

The law at the time didn’t even allow for criminal prosecution of Page.

Today, of course, he’d be chased from office and imprisoned.

Still, we have a long way to go in changing both the perception and reality of corruption in our old Kentucky home.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.