The Legislative Ethics Commission is investigating state Senate Democratic Leader Ed Worley's deal to build a state courthouse annex that he plans to rent out for $409,356 a year.
Worley, of Richmond, confirmed the investigation on Friday and said he has given business records to the ethics commission. He said he does not know whether he will appear at Tuesday's commission meeting in Frankfort, most of which will be closed to the public.
"We'll provide whatever information that people want, and if we need to attend, we'll attend," said Worley, who owns construction and development companies.
Anthony Wilhoit, the ethics commission's executive director, said he could not comment. The commission is appointed by the Senate president and House speaker.
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The Herald-Leader reported in July that Worley's companies are building a two-story office building in downtown Richmond to house the Madison County family courts for the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
State ethics law prohibits legislators and their spouses from leasing real estate to state agencies. Violations are a Class D felony. However, Worley's arrangement might sidestep that. He will own the courthouse annex, but his lease is with the county, and the county is arranging a lease deal with the AOC. So the rent money will pass through the county and not come directly from a state agency.
Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton plans to go ahead with the lease, an AOC spokeswoman said.
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.
On Friday, Worley said he fairly wins his deals, and he resents implications that he uses his Senate influence to his personal benefit.
"You're chasing something that is so far out there, you're connecting dots that are not connectable," Worley said.
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.
Worley helps decide state spending as a Senate leader and member of the conference committees that thrash out state budget details.
Dotting the i's
Elected to the Senate in 1999, Worley has collected millions of dollars in construction contracts from public entities that he helps to get state funding, including the city of Richmond, Madison County and Eastern Kentucky University. Local leaders frequently lobby him for his assistance and credit him for state funds he brings home.
"You have achieved such a strong record serving as an influential leader," then-EKU President Joanne Glasser wrote to Worley in 2007, one in a series of flattering letters she sent him at the start of the annual legislative sessions. "I am pleased that your colleagues continue to recognize your superb leadership skills and your remarkable grasp of the major issues facing us."
The next year, EKU gave one of Worley's companies a contract ultimately worth $1.6 million to build a clubhouse. Worley won the project after EKU disqualified the low bidder, Spectrum Contracting Services, because of a technical error. (The bid is written in both words and numbers. They didn't match.) Worley's bid was about $50,000 higher than Spectrum's.
EKU treats Worley as it would any businessman with an interest in bidding on contracts, regardless of his status as a Senate leader, said James Street, EKU associate vice president for capital planning and facilities management.
"If anything, there is a tendency to dot the i's and cross the t's with him because you know that eventually there will be an interview like this one," Street said.
'Basic smell test'
The Kentucky Constitution expressly forbids legislators from voting on measures in which they hold a personal interest. However, subsequent laws and court decisions have interpreted that ban so narrowly that lawmakers now are legally free to mix their public and private jobs — for instance, doing business with public agencies they fund — as long as the same opportunity is open to others, according to state ethics officials.
Given the public distrust of government, it's time for the Kentucky legislature to sharpen the ethics rules back to their original point, said Ernest Yanarella, a University of Kentucky political scientist who teaches about government and ethics.
Lawmakers need to apply "a basic smell test" to their actions to determine what outside observers would think, Yanarella said. Politicians who handle public money should expect a great deal of scrutiny when they take public money in their private lives, he added.
"They need to get their own house back in order," he said. "Norms used to be much stronger regarding ethical behavior. There were understandings that certain things should not be done."