Posted on Mon, Aug. 22, 2005

When GOP aides met GOP job-seekers
32 years was long time to wait
By Ryan Alessi

FRANKFORT -- A governor subpoenaed to testify before a special grand jury.

Nine former or current state officials under indictment.

An administration described by prosecutors as running a "corrupt political machine."

This summer in Kentucky's capital city has been one of dizzying developments played out in courtrooms and through government e-mails and memos that have become public.

What has emerged out of that complicated paper trail is a storyline of a new administration inundated by supporters' job requests and of ambitious aides eager to please.

The saga began with complaints about the way Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration hired state road supervisors and backhoe operators.

It has spiraled into a scandal that threatens to envelop the administration of the state's first Republican governor in three decades.

Today, the latest chapter will play out in Franklin Circuit Court, where investigators will submit documents justifying their search Friday of the computer server for the governor's office. Agents served a search warrant to review electronic files of the governor, his chief of staff, general counsel and communications staff.

To Fletcher's office, Friday's search was the latest outrage in an investigation it has described as a "witchhunt" purely "motivated by partisan politics" of Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo.

But the allegations of former employees and spurned job candidates have continued to gather steam as more documents, e-mail messages between officials and other details trickle out.

The grand jury's role

A special grand jury has been investigating the administration's hiring practices since June. Jurors have been sifting through that evidence and interviewing scores of former and current administration officials.

Fletcher has been called upon to appear before the jurors next week.

What has become apparent during this summer's probe is that Fletcher's administration was bombarded with job requests and candidate recommendations from GOP supporters across the state who had been longing for one of their own to be in control in Frankfort.

Roughly 32,000 of the state's 36,000 jobs are what's called "merit" positions that, by law, must be filled by candidates based on qualifications -- not politics.

The other 4,000, higher-level, posts are appointed and those officials serve at the governor's pleasure.

Starting this spring, some spurned job candidates for merit positions, mostly in the Transportation Cabinet's highway department, began complaining that they were turned away because of politics.

Some former employees also claimed that they were fired or reassigned by the Fletcher administration solely because they were Democrats or supported Fletcher's opponent in the 2003 election.

At least 13 people who say they were wronged have taken up their case with the Kentucky Personnel Board, which oversees the state hiring and firing rules. The seven members can overturn personnel decisions.

Were laws broken?

While those cases wind through the system, the attorney general's office has continued to look into whether officials' hiring practices broke the law.

So far, nine former or current officials have been charged with misdemeanors, such as conspiracy and political discrimination. Dan Druen, the former administrative services commissioner in the Transportation Cabinet, also faces 22 felony counts of tampering with a witness and with evidence.

All have pleaded not guilty. The first court hearing is set for Sept. 14.

The administration's handling of job recommendations has become a central focus of the probe.

Many Republicans funnelled applications and job requests through Fletcher's statewide outreach staff, called the Local Initiatives for a New Kentucky. The names of some of the most active LINK representatives, including Grayson Smith in Eastern Kentucky and Mary Krol in Louisville, often appeared scribbled next to job candidates in transportation officials' notes and surfaced in e-mail messages about open positions.

Other recommendations went directly to the governor's unpaid advisers, such as Dave Disponett, who had an office in the Capitol and is the Kentucky Republican Party's treasurer.

In one letter, Frankfort attorney William D. Kirkland wrote that a transportation employee should be promoted because "he and his family were also very hard workers in the campaign for Governor Ernie Fletcher."

Recommendations are not illegal. But officials who make personnel decisions solely because of those political recommendations or the candidate's party affiliation would be breaking the law.

Tracking the candidates

Within the Transportation Cabinet, officials regularly tracked the status of job candidates and charted political characteristics such as party registration and history of campaign donations, documents unsealed in Franklin District Court show.

Certain internal papers, alternately called "Position Recommendation" and "Candidate Form," included that information, as well as the names of prominent people who recommended the job seekers. Some forms even noted that prominent Republicans, such as former party chairman John McCarthy, interviewed the candidates.

Prosecutors also have alleged that Transportation Cabinet officials targeted longtime merit employees for transfers or firing.

Perhaps the most notorious document that's emerged in the investigation so far is a four-page memo dated April 18, 2005, that some in the administration dubbed a "hit list." It included 10 merit employees who were slated for demotion, reassignment or termination and their political ties, such as their party registration, Democratic administrations they served and prominent Democrats they supported.

Fletcher's office said that Druen, the former administrative services commissioner who has become a central figure in the probe, was an author of that memo.

Druen also had written in a notebook, which was confiscated by investigators in May, that the eight stages of hiring employees included getting "approval on political deal and name" of a job candidate through the cabinet's deputy secretary.

Officials have said much of the focus on personnel came from the 32 years worth of Democratic administrations, in which Republicans claim Republicans were locked out of jobs.

As Basil Turbyfill, who serves as the governor's personnel and efficiency director, put it, the administration needed to "get some 'R's' in" state road crews in areas where Democrats have had a stranglehold on jobs for years. "This pending vacancy in The Road Department may be a start," he said of a Lincoln County crew position in a handwritten note dated May 4, 2004.

Moving up the ranks

Steadily, prosecutors have been moving up the ranks of state government, culminating in the subpoena of Fletcher to testify.

In a court motion filed earlier this month, Assistant Attorney General Scott Crawford-Sutherland said that the use of local outreach staff members to recruit and vet job candidates revealed a "corrupt political machine."

That document also explains the role of what was known as the "governor's personnel initiative," which was run by Turbyfill and Deputy Personnel Secretary Bob Wilson.

The initiative included at least one representative from each of the nine cabinets, who discussed overall hiring strategies as well as specific open positions, documents have shown.

Turbyfill, according to Crawford-Sutherland's document, said the administration "wanted to see 'good Republicans' and 'our people' get jobs to take the heat off of Governor Fletcher."

It remains unclear how much Fletcher knew about the inner workings of the personnel initiative, but other e-mails and documents have revealed that Turbyfill's office in the Capitol was regularly updated on personnel moves by Transportation Cabinet officials.

Fletcher's office, meanwhile, has maintained that the personnel initiative was a training mechanism.

Overall, Fletcher has repeatedly said that although mistakes might have been made within the administration, he never knew of or saw evidence of illegal activities.

Still, a summer's worth of subpoenas and indictments already has taken a toll on Fletcher, observers have said.

"It is really freezing a governor's administration," said Larry Sabato, a national political expert from the University of Virginia, in a recent interview. "It's very damaging. These scandals always are."

A two-page chart shows the major figures in inquiry and summarizes the events so far. Pages A6-7


Reach Ryan Alessi at (859) 231-1303 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1303, or ralessi@herald-leader.com.
Source: http://www.kentucky.com/mld/kentucky/12443314.htm

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