House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, appointed a panel Wednesday to investigate claims that Gov. Matt Bevin delayed a Jessamine County road project as political retribution against a Democratic lawmaker.
Stumbo said the five-member panel, which includes three Democratic and two Republican lawmakers, will have the authority to subpoena witnesses and present their findings to the full House in January.
“What we don’t need in this commonwealth is executive branch actions that retaliate against members,” Stumbo said.
He added: “We’re not asking them to find anything but the truth.”
Bevin’s chief of staff, Blake Brickman, said Stumbo is trying to distract voters from recent scandals in the Democratic Party.
“This is all about politics and this is a complete and total farce,” Brickman said.
After Stumbo’s announcement, Brickman played what he said was a voice mail that Stumbo left for state Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown. In it, Stumbo said he didn’t know if Bevin threatened Democratic members who refused to switch parties and that he’s “sure this story is not as bad as maybe it’s portrayed.”
At the root of the drama is an $11 million extension of East Brannon Road in Jessamine County to Tates Creek Road near the Fayette County line that had been approved by Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, just before he left office in December.
The Bevin administration delayed the project, saying the Beshear administration didn’t secure a necessary portion of land before the deadline to begin work. The state was contractually obligated to pay The Allen Co. $625,000 in damages because of the delay.
After Bevin took office, Rep. Russ Meyer, D-Nicholasville, said he was approached to switch parties. Meyer claims he was threatened with political retribution after he refused the governor’s offer and that the road project was subsequently delayed.
Stumbo said road contracts are often issued before all of the necessary rights of ways have been acquired.
According to an email obtained by Stumbo, the landowners in question were seeking $434,000 for their property on March 11. The state had appraised the property at $225,000.
If the governor had paid the landowners their asking price, the state would have saved money by avoiding the $625,000 fee it paid the contractor for damages caused by the delay, Stumbo said.
“There is enough here to seriously question why these actions occurred,” Stumbo said.
Prior to the news conference, House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, issued a statement saying the panel was intended to divert attention from scandals in the Democratic Party. For example, Tim Longmeyer was sentenced last week to 70 months in prison for using his position as secretary of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet under former Gov. Steve Beshear to arrange for kickbacks from a contractor.
“Kentucky Democrats are crumbling from within,” Hoover said. “As they turn against one another in the midst of federal indictments and plea bargains, we are just seeing more of the same from party bosses like Greg Stumbo.”
Hoover also questioned whether Stumbo has authority to form the panel and allow it to subpoena witnesses since the General Assembly isn’t in session.
“No one has shown me where the speaker has any authority to put together this committee,” Hoover said.
Stumbo said he created the panel because he doesn’t trust that the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, will be impartial.
“I don’t think anyone can say that they’re an independent entity in this respect,” Stumbo said.
When asked by a reporter how this panel is different, Stumbo said it wouldn’t cost as much. Members of the panel will be paid for their time and they have the authority to hire outside counsel, he said.
The panel includes state Reps. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville; Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, Arnold Simpson, D-Covington; Jimmy Stewart, R-Flat Lick; and David Floyd, R-Bardstown.
Hoover, however, said Floyd “told me emphatically that he will not serve on this committee.”
Stumbo said the panel has the authority to investigate whether Bevin may have threatened other lawmakers who refused to switch parties, such as Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland.
If the panel finds evidence of a crime, those involved could be charged with official misconduct in the first degree or abuse of public trust, Stumbo said.
“It is not an impeachment committee, it’s a committee to find out what has occurred,” Stumbo said.
Bevin, who pushed last year for Democrats to switch parties and give control of the House to Republicans, has denied threatening lawmakers.
Brickman said the Bevin administration will answer any questions raised about the road project.
“The Bevin administration has absolutely not one thing to hide about this Brannon Road project,” Brickman said. “It is complete politics.”