Report: State Rep. Keith Hall says mine inspector asked for money

jcheves@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2013 

Kentucky State Representative Keith Hall (D), House District 93, Pike County. LRC Photo

State Rep. Keith Hall, a Pike County coal operator, called two officials in the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet last year to complain that a state surface mine inspector was soliciting money from him, according to state records.

While lodging his complaint in November with Billy Ratliff, the state's director of mine reclamation and enforcement, Hall went on to say that he already had given money to the inspector, Kelly Shortridge, who was responsible for checking on Hall's mines until August 2011.

"Hall informed Ratliff that he had given a 'small fortune' to Shortridge for the Millard Little League basketball team even though Shortridge does not have any children in the league. Hall conveyed that Shortridge 'liked the Benjamins' but would not elaborate," according to a report prepared in March by the cabinet's Office of the Inspector General.

Shortridge told Inspector General Alan Wagers that he has helped raise funds for the Millard Little League for about 18 years. However, league president Ricky Adkins said last week that Shortridge has not been involved with the Pike County group for at least seven years, though he served as its president in the past when his children were young.

Shortridge did not return calls seeking comment last week.

Hall, D-Phelps, refused to discuss the matter further with cabinet officials. In January, the lawmaker declined to speak with Wagers, who was assigned to investigate Hall's allegation. He also did not return calls to the Lexington Herald-Leader seeking comment last week.

In his report, Wagers said he could not substantiate Hall's allegation that Shortridge demanded money. He did not pursue Hall's comment about giving money to Shortridge in the past or interview several people with information about the men's relationship, including the previous two commissioners of the Department for Natural Resources, who had raised concerns inside the cabinet.

"I don't know that it even seemed relevant to us," Wagers said last week.

In phone calls last year, Hall told Ratliff and Natural Resources Commissioner Steve Hohmann that Shortridge warned one of Hall's business partners about potential citations at one of Hall's mines. Hall quoted Shortridge as saying, "You need to tell Keith he needs to pay me that money he owes me. ... If he doesn't, then I'll go ahead and write this noncompliance (citation), and a cessation order may be next," according to the inspector general's report.

Shortridge, who works in the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, told Wagers in a January interview that he visited one of Hall's business partners in late 2012 to discuss potential violations at a mine owned by Hall that could result in expensive fines. Shortridge said the visit was meant as a personal courtesy; he no longer had any official involvement with Hall's mines. He denied demanding money from Hall.

"If Keith (Hall) owes me any money, what does he owe me money for? If he alleges that I owe him money, is it something that he's asked me to do, maybe illegally or what, that I turned him down on to begin with?" Shortridge told the inspector general. "As far as the accusation of money, there is no money owed to me."

The inspector general added, "Shortridge denied that he solicited Little League donations from Hall but added that two or three years ago, Hall provided unsolicited donations a 'couple of times.' Shortridge did not recall the exact amount of the donations."

'It is a closed matter'

Hall's business partner, Gerald Thacker, told the inspector general that Shortridge visited his office for about 20 minutes after Thanksgiving and warned him about problems at the mine. Thacker quoted Shortridge as saying, "If Keith doesn't get this taken care of, it's going to cost you $25,000 or $30,000," according to the inspector general's report.

Thacker said he felt "that Shortridge wanted him to put 'pressure' on Hall to get 'something,' which Thacker guessed was a favor or money," the inspector general wrote. "Thacker admitted that Shortridge never explicitly stated that he wanted money or a favor."

Wagers sent his report to Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters. It was not referred to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Legislative Ethics Commission or other outside agencies. Cabinet officials last week said they've been instructed to not publicly discuss the report or Hall's remark about giving money to Shortridge, who remains on duty.

"It is a closed matter. We're not going to comment further," cabinet spokesman Dick Brown said by email.

Hall, elected to the General Assembly in 2000, is chairman of the House Committee on Tourism Development and Energy and vice chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment. In 2011, he was reprimanded by the Legislative Ethics Commission and fined $2,000 for appropriating coal-severance taxes for a Pike County sewer project from which one of his companies won more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts.

Shortridge, 53, has been an inspector for the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement for 23 years. His salary in 2012 was $45,160.

Shortridge was suspended for five days in 2009 for poor work performance after failing to cite serious violations at surface mines permitted to Appalachian Fuels, owned by the Addington family. He continued to fail to cite violations at various mines, including at least one permitted to Hall, Shortridge's supervisors told the inspector general.

In 2011, he was suspended for 15 days because he threatened workplace violence after he was taken off Hall's mines.

Charles Holbrook, manager of the division's Pikeville office, told the inspector general that Shortridge "has a reputation for being a troublemaker and is always trying to buck the system." Ratliff, the division director in Frankfort, said in the same report that Shortridge would "rather skirt around policies and the rules and regulations for shortcuts."

Shortridge told his colleagues that Hall was his friend, according to state records. In several office discussions, Shortridge included Hall on the internal email chains. He asked Hall to use his legislative power to have a bridge named after a family member. His assigned inspection territory included Hall's mines until 2011.

'Too chummy'

Hall holds the permits for Pike County coal mines with a repetitive pattern of safety and environmental violations, according to state officials. In the last three years, inspectors have cited Hall's Beech Creek Coal Co. and other companies mining coal on his permits for dropping rocks on homes; mining outside of permitted areas; water pollution; failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds; and allowing rocks, dirt and trees to slide down slopes.

Susan Bush, commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources from 2004 to 2008, said she asked for Shortridge to be removed from Hall's mines, though she said she doesn't know if he was.

"Some statements had been made to make me believe there was a friendship there. I didn't even want the perception of something improper," Bush, now the environmental quality director for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, said last week.

Carl Campbell succeeded Bush and served from 2008 to 2011. Campbell said he ordered Shortridge removed from Hall's mines in 2011 after Hall called Frankfort and lobbied him to promote the inspector to a supervisor's post in Pikeville. (In January, Shortridge told the inspector general he "mentioned job openings he was interested in to Hall, and Hall volunteered to make phone calls to help him," according to the inspector general's report.)

"I told him, 'I appreciate your putting in a good word for Mr. Shortridge, but I make my own decisions for my own reasons,'" Campbell said last week. "Keith was pushing to get Kelly Shortridge in charge of the Pikeville office, and I did not want that. When things get too chummy, it's not good business. Our job was to enforce the law equally for everyone."

Shortridge was unhappy about his reassignment, according to state records. He became angry and threatened workplace violence, resulting in a 15-day suspension without pay, according to Shortridge's disciplinary file at the state Personnel Board. Shortridge initially challenged his punishment but later dropped it, failing to appear for an appeal hearing in Frankfort.

Neither Bush nor Campbell was interviewed by the cabinet's inspector general for his report. Officials at the Millard Little League said they also were not contacted by the inspector general.

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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