What could Attorney General Andy Beshear be thinking?
Beshear has spent much of his short time in office trying to convince the public he is fighting for government accountability by challenging Gov. Matt Bevin’s dictatorial impulses.
Then he lets his lieutenants run off Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, who has been one of Kentucky’s leading champions of government accountability since Beshear was in middle school.
Kentucky’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws, passed in 1975 and 1976, have been national models. They require officials to respond to requests promptly, and give attorney general’s opinions the force of law unless they are appealed to court.
Laws only work when they are enforced. For 25 years, Bensenhaver has been the key attorney general’s staff member responsible for that enforcement, writing about 2,000 legal opinions. She has done an outstanding job, which often has displeased powerful people who would rather not do the public’s business in public.
Bensenhaver, 58, decided to retire Wednesday, telling Beshear in her letter of resignation that she was leaving “under considerable duress” and was concerned about his office’s commitment to Open Records and Open Meetings law enforcement.
She had received a stern reprimand in July from a Beshear lieutenant, who cited her “lack of good conduct and a poor performance of work duties.”
Bensenhaver was criticized for refusing to sign her name to an open records decision with which she disagreed, and twice editing opinions after they had been approved by supervisors. Bensenhaver said she simply removed a footnote that was factually incorrect and corrected another footnote.
But her major offense was giving an interview to John Nelson, retired editor of the Danville Advocate-Messenger and former president of the Kentucky Press Association, for a column he wrote commemorating the 40th anniversary of the state’s transparency laws. Nothing Bensenhaver told Nelson was controversial.
Richard Beliles, longtime chairman of the government watchdog group Common Cause Kentucky, wonders why the state official in charge of enforcing government accountability would suddenly be so sensitive about a senior assistant speaking with a journalist about her area of expertise.
“This is a mistake that’s going to make his entire position weaker,” Beliles said of Beshear. “I thought he was for openness in government.”
The timing of this debacle could not be worse for Beshear, who is waging a bitter fight with the Republican who succeeded his father as governor. As Beshear has challenged Bevin’s expansive use of executive power, he has faced scandal in his own office.
Beshear’s deputy attorney general, Tim Longmeyer, resigned in March and pleaded guilty in April to federal bribery charges related to his job in former Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration. A month later, Don Pasley, an executive adviser to the attorney general, resigned after being charged with DUI.
For Kentuckians who believe government officials should be accountable to the public and the law, this is a bad time for meltdowns in the attorney general’s office.
For example, the attorney general’s office has repeatedly rebuked the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville for violating the Open Records and Open Meetings laws. Increasingly, the state’s two largest public universities act like secretive corporations that think they should be accountable only to themselves.
In the latest of six recent rulings against UK, the attorney general’s office said Friday that university officials violated the Open Records Act by refusing the Herald-Leader’s request for documents related to a Hazard cardiology practice UK purchased and then had to spend $5 million to fix billing problems.
In that case and another one, which UK is appealing to Fayette Circuit Court, the university even refused to follow the law and submit the requested documents to the attorney general for legal review.
Open Records and Open Meetings laws are important tools for citizens, especially in a state with a history of public corruption and abuse of power. With Bensenhaver’s help, previous state attorneys general have vigorously enforced those laws.
Bensenhaver’s departure under these circumstances has damaged Beshear’s credibility. How does he plan to repair it?