Ethics panel nixes League of Cities' gift to former president

Request was in line with past practices

jbrammer@herald-leader.comSeptember 20, 2011 

Elaine Walker

FRANKFORT — The Executive Branch Ethics Commission on Monday rejected a plan by the Kentucky League of Cities to spend up to $500 on a gift for Secretary of State Elaine Walker, who served as the group's president last year.

The commission voted unanimously to deny the League's request for the gift, calling it excessive.

Commission member William Knopf said a $500 gift "makes me blush."

"I think $500 is a pretty generous gift. In my mind, a little more than necessary," he said.

The League, which came under fire in recent years for excessive spending, had asked the commission for an advisory opinion about the gift.

The League has presented a gift typically valued at $500 to its outgoing president at its annual conference for the past 15 years in appreciation of the outgoing president's service, said the commission's opinion.

But Jon Steiner, who became the League's executive director Nov. 1, said the League officially asked the ethics commission "for a ruling on anything over $25, not necessarily a gift valued at $500."

State law prohibits any state public official from accepting a gift worth more than $25 from any person or company doing business with the state.

"In order to thank Secretary Walker for her service to Kentucky cities, we pro-actively sought the opinion of the Ethics Commission before committing to any gift valued over $25," Steiner said. "As Bowling Green mayor, Elaine Walker gave hours of her personal time to help steer KLC through its darkest hours and to rebuild the league's credibility. We have the opinion of the commission and will abide by it. This is precisely how the process is supposed to work."

He said the League was "committed to transparency" and noted that the group's expenses, audits and budgets have been posted online since Jan. 1.

The gift was to be presented to Walker at the annual League conference in October.

Walker became president of the League's executive board in July 2010 while serving as mayor of Bowling Green.

Before completing her term as president, Walker was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear and sworn in as secretary of state on Jan. 29 to complete the remainder of the term vacated by Trey Grayson, who took a job at Harvard University.

Walker had to step down as the League's president at that time. She lost a Democratic primary election last spring for a full four-year term as secretary of state.

Because the League has a business relationship with the secretary of state's office, it asked the ethics commission for an exception from the state law that limits gifts to public officials.

The League works with the secretary of state's office on legislation that affects both agencies and has annual corporate filings with the secretary of state's office, the opinion said.

The ethics commission's staff initially recommended that the exception should be granted because the gift was for Walker's past service to the League and not for her service as secretary of state.

But commission members said the gift created an appearance of impropriety and was excessive.

The commission's executive director, John Steffen, noted that the League could wait until Walker is out of office and give her a gift then. He also noted that Walker had not requested any gift from the League.

Walker said Monday she was humbled that the League wanted to give her a gift similar to those presented in previous years but said she understood and supported the decision by the ethics commission.

In 2009, state Auditor Crit Luallen issued a scathing report about the League's spending practices, alleged conflicts of interest and board oversight. Her audit was prompted by a Lexington Herald-Leader investigation.

The League provides insurance, lobbying and other services to its member cities. Its insurance group collects more than $38 million in premiums and insures more than $3.1 billion worth of property.

The ethics commission on Monday also presented its Livingston Taylor Ethics Award to Luallen for her work in uncovering "millions of dollars of fraud" in state government. The award is named for the late Courier-Journal reporter who was the ethics commission's first chairman.

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