Coal executive not registered as lobbyist

jcheves@herald-leader.comDecember 9, 2009 

FRANKFORT — An Alliance Coal executive connected to a state firing controversy has called, written and met with political appointees of Gov. Steve Beshear's administration on coal-related issues for at least the past year without registering as a lobbyist.

Raymond "Rusty" Ashcraft has made suggestions to aides in Beshear's office and at the Energy and Environment Cabinet about policy on mountaintop-removal mining, blasting, slurry ponds, state budgeting for mine regulators, federal mining funds and other issues, according to records obtained by the Herald-Leader.

Ashcraft — who is manager of environmental affairs and permitting at Alliance Coal's Lexington office — also used his state contacts to monitor the progress of his company's mine permits, with aides to the governor sometimes checking on his behalf.

However, Ashcraft is not registered with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission to lobby the Beshear administration. He is registered to lobby the General Assembly with the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission.

State ethics law defines a lobbyist as anyone engaged to influence executive branch decisions on funds, contracts or other state resources. It's a Class D felony to intentionally fail to register as an executive branch lobbyist, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Of at least a dozen e-mails from Ashcraft to state officials since Jan. 1, some discussed what he considered the best use of state resources.

For example, in an Aug. 5 e-mail to the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Ashcraft said he would meet at the Capitol with aides to the governor to discuss the backlog of mine permit applications and how it might be addressed given the slow pace of hiring caused by state budget cuts. Federal matching funds from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining would be one possibility discussed, Ashcraft wrote.

Ashcraft did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

"I always recommend that people register to lobby with us, just as a precaution if nothing else, if they're going to have a lot of contact with the executive branch regarding policy," said John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

The ethics laws are no small matter, said Richard Beliles, state chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, a watchdog group.

"If we want open, honest government, we need people to follow this law," Beliles said. "Without this disclosure, the public has no way of knowing who is seeking behind the scenes to influence the governor and his appointees for their own benefit."

Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said there is nothing improper about state officials listening to the coal industry's concerns over permit delays, federal policies or other issues.

"However, it is important that individuals who speak on behalf of a broader group be formally registered as lobbyists in the executive branch, and we strongly encourage those individuals to take that action," Richardson said.

Thomas FitzGerald, a leading environmental lobbyist, has publicly questioned what role Ashcraft may have played in last month's firing of Ron Mills, director of the state Division of Mine Permits, after Mills opposed five Alliance Coal permit requests in Hopkins and Webster counties.

Mills said the permits would be illegal because Alliance Coal, based in Tulsa, Okla., had not demonstrated the legal right to enter all of the land included in its application. After an internal debate in October 2008, the Beshear administration overruled Mills and ordered the permits to be approved.

Beshear and the Kentucky Democratic Party are among the beneficiaries of several hundred thousand dollars in political donations made by Alliance Coal's executives, employees and political action committee.

Mills said his boss, Natural Resources Commissioner Carl Campbell, had warned him for months that Ashcraft and the governor's office were pushing for his ouster because of his opposition to the permits. The morning Mills was fired, almost simultaneously, Ashcraft sent an e-mail to colleagues announcing the firing would happen.

Campbell and Ashcraft have declined to comment on the firing. Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters has said the decision was his alone because he was dissatisfied with Mills' management.

A review of correspondence among Peters, Campbell, Mills and other state officials since January did not produce any written evidence of complaints about Mills' performance before his firing.

But the documents do show Ashcraft reached out to political appointees, sometimes speaking for Alliance Coal, other times passing along the policy stances of the Kentucky Coal Association or the National Mining Association.

On Sept. 30, responding to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mining rule, Ashcraft sent an e-mail to the governor's office and the Energy and Environment Cabinet with an attachment from the National Mining Association titled "EPA moratorium threatens economy — Talking Points."

"We may find that 9 of 49 applications have already begun disturbance without a 404 permit," which allows the discharge of dredged materials into waterways, Ashcraft wrote that day to Geoffrey Dunn, Beshear's executive director of boards and commissions.

"Obviously, there is no excuse for violating the law," Ashcraft wrote. However, he added, "This type of action is not indicative of an 'outlaw' industry but represents the symptoms of the growing frustrations of obtaining the environmental permits."

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