Ky. mine inspector resigns amid state, federal inquiries involving state lawmaker

jcheves@herald-leader.comFebruary 13, 2014 

— A Kentucky coal mine inspector is resigning amid state and federal inquiries about his relationship with state Rep. W. Keith Hall, D-Phelps.

Kelly Shortridge, an inspector in Pikeville with the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, told his managers in a Jan. 31 letter that he's quitting effective Friday after 24 years on the job.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of the Inspector General and the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission have opened separate inquiries into the relationship between Shortridge and Hall, according to state records the Lexington Herald-Leader obtained Thursday using the Kentucky Open Records Act.

The Herald-Leader reported last June that Hall — who holds the permits on Pike County surface mines with histories of safety violations — complained to two officials in the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet that Shortridge was soliciting money from him, and that he already had paid Shortridge "a small fortune" in the past. Hall declined to elaborate when the officials pressed him for details.

The cabinet's inspector general investigated Hall's allegation and gave a report to Secretary Len Peters, but the report was not referred to anyone outside the cabinet.

Shortridge and Hall were friends for years while Shortridge inspected Hall's mines, according to state records. Carl Campbell, a former natural resources commissioner, said he reassigned Shortridge away from Hall's mines in August 2011 after the lawmaker called him and lobbied for Shortridge to get a promotion. The men were "too chummy," Campbell said in an interview last June. The reassignment prompted Shortridge to threaten workplace violence and led to a 15-day job suspension, according to state records.

After the Herald-Leader published its story, Interior Department Special Agent Laura Hast issued several requests to the cabinet for records, including all mine permits assigned to Shortridge since 2009, particularly "any permits associated with Keith Hall." Her most recent request arrived last week. Emails between Hast and the Energy and Environment Cabinet suggest that state officials are complying.

The Interior Department monitors Kentucky state mine inspections and environmental protection to ensure compliance with federal laws.

Hast, based in Herndon, Va., did not return a call seeking comment Thursday, and cabinet spokesman Dick Brown said he could not comment on Shortridge's resignation or any possible investigations.

Last July, the day after the Herald-Leader published its story, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission called the cabinet and requested a copy of the cabinet's inspector general report about Shortridge and Hall, which the newspaper had referenced, according to state email. Shortridge later informed his supervisors that he had been summoned to Frankfort on Aug. 21 "to be interviewed by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission."

John Steffen, executive director of the ethics commission, said he could neither confirm nor deny whether his agency is investigating Shortridge and Hall.

Shortridge, 53, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. He made $45,160 a year and had his wages garnisheed by creditors several times, most recently in October by Speedy Cash Check Advance in Pikeville, which claimed that he owed $676, according to his state personnel file.

Hall declined to talk Thursday about Shortridge or the investigations.

"I have no comment," Hall said on the House floor.

Hall, 54, elected to the legislature in 2000, is chairman of the House Committee on Tourism Development and Energy and is 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 helping to appropriate coal-severance taxes for a Pike County sewer project from which one of his companies won more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts.

In phone calls in 2012, Hall told two cabinet officials that Shortridge warned one of his business partners about potential citations at one of his 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 report by the cabinet's inspector general.

"Hall informed (one of the officials) 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," the inspector general wrote.

Shortridge told the cabinet's inspector general 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.

"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, according to the report.

The inspector general said, "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."

Hall refused to speak to the cabinet's inspector general for his report.

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

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