Ralph Coldiron resigned Tuesday from his political appointment at the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, after the Herald-Leader asked him and Gov. Steve Beshear's office about the legality of a controversial pay raise he received.
Beshear named Coldiron two months ago as executive director of the Office of 911 Coordinator and administrator for the Commercial Mobile Radio Services Board, which is attached to Homeland Security.
The job involves collecting user fees from wireless phone carriers to help improve 911 services around the state.
The CMRS Board advertised the job with a salary of $60,000 to $80,000 a year, in line with what past directors were paid. But Beshear gave the job to Coldiron — a friend and business partner of Beshear's chief of staff, Adam Edelen — and raised the pay to $100,000.
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Under state law, only the CMRS Board can set the director's pay. CMRS Board Chairman David Lucas said Tuesday that nobody on his board realized that Coldiron made $100,000 until they read it in a Herald-Leader story about Beshear's political appointees at Homeland Security.
"Obviously, we would prefer that they ask us about the salary. But they did not," Lucas said.
After the Herald-Leader asked Coldiron and Beshear's office about the legality of the pay raise, Coldiron submitted a letter of resignation to Homeland Security Executive Director Thomas Preston.
"As my employment in state government has become a distraction for this administration, I am resigning my position, effective Jan. 30, 2009, to pursue other career opportunities," Coldiron wrote.
Coldiron did not return a call seeking comment.
Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton said the governor had been unaware of the law and assumed he could decide Coldiron's pay, as he does for other political appointees in state government.
"As you know, with most non-merit, ungraded positions, the governor has broad latitude and discretion to set salaries," Blanton said. Blanton had no comment on Coldiron's resignation.
The CMRS Board will now — as it did with Coldiron — advertise the job, interview applicants and send the governor a list of finalists from which to choose.
The post that Coldiron is quitting was created in the 1990s during Gov. Paul Patton's administration.
Its first occupant, John Patterson, had technical expertise in 911 systems from his past career at the Lexington fire department, where he helped to install 911 programming at the dispatch center. He made about $72,000 after five years.
Nobody at that point considered the job to be political, and the governor's office never interfered, Patterson recalled Tuesday.
"Paul Patton basically let us do whatever he felt we needed to do," Patterson said.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher replaced Patterson with his own director, after asking the CMRS Board twice for lists of finalists because he wasn't satisfied with the names produced, Lucas said.
Fletcher also bypassed the CMRS Board to decide the director's salary on his own, Lucas said. Fletcher's appointee, Kenneth Mitchell, was making $80,538 last year when Beshear replaced him with Coldiron.
The political appointees have arrived with less technical expertise, Lucas said. Coldiron, for example, previously handled marketing at Thomas & King, a Lexington restaurant franchisee.
To compensate, the CMRS Board in 2006 added a staff assistant who had 12 years of communications experience in the Kentucky State Police. She makes $63,756 a year.
Coldiron, of Lexington, is a Democratic activist who previously held jobs during the administrations of Govs. Julian Carroll, John Y. Brown Jr. and Wallace Wilkinson and Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler.
Coldiron and Edelen, the current governor's chief of staff, had worked together at Thomas & King. They also were partners with Frankfort lobbyist Bob Babbage in a land-development company that the men recently dissolved after the Herald-Leader reported on it.
In a series of e-mails last fall, Coldiron complained to Edelen that he was hurting financially, in part because their company built a large, expensive house in Bourbon County that was sitting on the market.
Coldiron told Edelen that he was interested in the CMRS job. He noted that it had an $80,000 salary limit and then repeatedly asked Edelen about the status of his hiring paperwork.
"I am just making sure that this is going to happen and I am not hanging out there with no income, that would be disastrous for me," Coldiron wrote Edelen on Oct. 17.
When Coldiron started at Homeland Security a month later, his salary was set at $100,000.