FRANKFORT — The Legislative Ethics Commission admonished state Senate Democratic Leader Ed Worley of Richmond on Tuesday but ultimately dismissed a complaint that alleged he inappropriately used his power for personal benefit.
Worley is building a state courthouse annex that he plans to rent out for $409,356 a year, despite a general rule against legislators selling or leasing property to the state. The commission ruled unanimously that the deal is legal because Worley is leasing his court annex to Madison County, which will lease it to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
"The law provides no penalty for the appearance of impropriety, but if it did, the respondent could well be penalized on the facts before us," the commission wrote in its order. "In the future, the respondent must be more careful in conducting his private business in ways in which he might appear to be using his public office. He has assured the commission that he will."
Outside the hearing room, Worley said the complaint was filed by his political opponents based on critical news coverage in the Herald-Leader.
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"The perception was created by (the Herald-Leader)," said Worley, who owns construction and development companies. "We were totally comfortable that we had done nothing improper or unethical."
The man who filed the complaint, Richmond retiree John Wernegreen, said he's not a political opponent of Worley's or likely to seek elected office.
Wernegreen said he read about Worley's courthouse deal in the newspaper and wanted to know if legislative ethics laws prevent a senator from leasing to his own government. He suspected that convenient loopholes would make the deal permissible, he said.
"I'm not surprised," Wernegreen said in a phone interview. "I've lived in Kentucky for 40 years."
The Herald-Leader reported in July that Worley's companies are building a two-story building in downtown Richmond to house the Madison County family courts on behalf of the state AOC.
Worley's rent will be 166 percent more than the $154,050 a year the AOC currently pays for the family courts in a county-owned building next door. But county officials say the courts need more space, and Worley's building will be nearly three times as large as the current building — 16,600 square feet versus 6,162 square feet
The courthouse deal was put together by a friend and Democratic political ally of Worley's, Madison County Judge-Executive Kent Clark. Clark advertised for anyone who could offer 15,000 to 16,000 square feet of office space within two blocks of the main courthouse. Worley was the sole qualified applicant.
The ethics commission noted that Worley's lease is with the county, not the state, and added that he is entitled to engage in private business.
While it's true that Worley votes on the judicial branch budget — and in fact, he voted for the budget that authorized a leased Madison County family courts building — other people could have bid on the project if they had met the qualifications, "so there was no personal gain as a direct result of his vote," the commission ruled.
Still, Worley should be more careful about how his deals appear to the public, commission chairman George Troutman advised him.
"I would strongly urge you to think of perception when you do things like this and maybe save yourself a lot of pain and strain, as well as your family and your partners," Troutman said. "I certainly hope we don't have you before us again."
The nine-member ethics commission, which includes two former legislators, is appointed by the Senate president and House speaker. Together, they have given more than $75,000 in political donations in recent years to members of the legislature as well as to the state Democratic and Republican parties, among other recipients.
Not once in a dozen years has the commission punished a lawmaker for personally benefitting from a conflict of interest, said Anthony Wilhoit, the commission's executive director since 1997.
"We've had complaints filed, certainly," Wilhoit said, "but nobody has been found guilty."