Executives at a for-profit college under investigation by Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway urged scores of employees at a gathering last week to support his Republican challenger in the Nov. 8 election.
Kayla Porter, a former admissions officer at Spencerian College in Louisville, said she and her colleagues were told during a two-day training summit in Louisville to vote for and give campaign donations to Republican Todd P'Pool.
"I was asked to raise my hand and say yes, I would send money to the campaign of Todd P'Pool. It was a group setting of 150 of my colleagues," Porter said Wednesday.
"I was one of maybe 10 people in the room to not raise my hand. It was conspicuous," she said. "But I was thinking, 'I've never heard of this guy before, why would I send him money?'"
Spencerian College, owned by the Sullivan University System, is one of the for-profit schools whose business practices Conway is investigating. Conway's office confirmed Wednesday that it subpoenaed documents from Spencerian College in December as part of its ongoing investigation.
Conway has taken legal action against Daymar College and Brown Mackie College, alleging they defrauded students and manipulated government-tuition assistance programs, respectively.
In public remarks, Sullivan University Chancellor A.R. Sullivan has defended the for-profit college industry and criticized Conway's investigation as "a re-election sham." Sullivan and his executives gave $12,000 to P'Pool's campaign on April 29, and he's hosting a fund-raising reception for P'Pool on Thursday.
Kentucky Revised Statute 121.310 makes it a felony for employers to "coerce or direct any employee to vote for any political party or candidate."
Grover Potts Jr., an attorney for the Sullivan University System, on Wednesday said college executives recommended that their employees vote for P'Pool and donate to his campaign, but they did not intend to be coercive.
"I'm told there were more than 100 people in the room, and so far, only 25 people have donated," Potts said. "I think it's much ado about nothing."
According to Porter, Sullivan and Jim Crick, Sullivan University's vice president for enrollment management, made the appeals for P'Pool. Potts confirmed that.
Sullivan began the summit by complaining about Conway's investigation and told everyone present to vote for P'Pool, Porter said. Crick urged the audience to give money to the P'Pool campaign, she said. Employees were told to submit checks to the Sullivan University office, where they would be bundled into a single package for the P'Pool campaign, she said.
Sullivan and Crick did not return repeated calls Wednesday seeking comment. But Potts said the executives were expressing their opinions about which candidate would be best for the business.
"He obviously feels very strongly that this sector is being singled out by Jack Conway for political purposes," Potts said of Sullivan. "I think his solicitation of votes didn't cross any line. He simply said, 'I urge you to vote for Todd P'Pool because I think Jack Conway is trying to put Sullivan University out of business.'"
Porter said she quit her job at Spencerian College on Aug. 4, the day after the summit, because she felt "very uncomfortable with the entire thing."
"I understand that all companies are going to have things that they feel are best for them politically," Porter said. "But I don't feel like you can ask me to do that. Also, I felt like it was odd to request that I send this money into the corporate office so they can track whether or not I've made the donation."
P'Pool campaign manager David Ray said he would not discuss whether the campaign knew about money being solicited from Sullivan University employees.
"I'm not going to talk about our fund-raising strategy with the Herald-Leader," Ray said. "Our fund-raising is proprietary."
Conway spokeswoman Allison Martin called the fund-raising a "desperate act by the target of an investigation," but she said it "will not deter the Office of the Attorney General from its statutory obligation to protect the consumers of Kentucky from fraudulent and deceptive practices."
Bosses ought to leave politics out of the workplace to avoid making anyone fear for their jobs, said Richard Beliles, chairman of watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky and past member of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
"I would have felt a little bit intimidated in this lady's situation," Beliles said, referring to Porter. "Employees should feel entirely free to act on their own choices."
P'Pool hasn't taken a public stand on whether for-profit colleges need tighter regulation to protect students, said Ray, his campaign manager. But the issue isn't a top priority, he said.
When P'Pool is on the campaign trail, Kentuckians are "not asking him about culinary schools," Ray said.