Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Hazard, was in Frankfort on Friday but he wasn’t going anywhere near the special panel appointed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to investigate Gov. Matt Bevin’s alleged threats of retaliation against Democratic lawmakers.
“Physically, it would be very easy (for Steele to be here),” said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, the chairman of the panel. “Psychologically, evidently, there’s some issues.”
Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, was the only lawmaker willing to testify before the panel Friday and his testimony placed both him and Steele in the basement of the Governor’s Mansion last December, when Sinnette said Bevin allegedly threatened to “take him down” if he didn’t switch parties.
To date, Steele has not come forward to say he was threatened by Bevin.
Steele, who was defeated in the Nov. 8 election, is one of at least four witnesses who have refused to testify before the panel, some of whom said they didn’t accept the legality of the panel. State Rep. Russ Meyer, D-Nicholasville, was also asked to testify at Friday’s meeting but said he couldn’t attend.
With the balance of power in the House shifting to the Republicans in January, the panel is running out of time to gather the evidence it needs to create a report.
“The outcome has changed somewhat in that we have to speed up the process because as of January 3rd we will no longer be in power and Rep. (Jeff) Hoover has already said that he doesn’t think kindly about this whole investigation,” Wayne said. “So we’re going to try to issue a report by the end of the year.”
But with witnesses refusing to testify, gathering facts for that report has become difficult. In order to hear from Steele or to have Transportation Cabinet officials thoroughly explain why road projects were paused, the panel would have to subpoena those witnesses.
If the subpoenas were challenged, the issue would be taken to court, a process that would stretch past when Republicans take control in January.
Speaker-elect Hoover, R-Jamestown, has questioned the legality of the panel since it was formed and legal council for the governor said the committee lacked authority to question two Transportation Cabinet officials.
Wayne said if the committee isn’t legally allowed to issue subpoenas when the legislature is not in session, as opponents have argued, then it cripples the authority of the legislature.
“If the committee only has subpoena power when the legislature is in session, you’ve limited the power of the legislature significantly,” Wayne said. “It’s very difficult to do a thorough investigation of accusations, say, in a 60-day window of a large session.”
Friday, Sinnette repeated his claim that the governor threatened to “take him down,” but said he didn’t have evidence showing Bevin actually acted on his alleged threat.
Sinnette said the only action he’s seen that could be considered retribution is that road projects in his county were paused, as were dozens of others across the state that had been approved by former Gov. Steve Beshear. Also, he said an automated phone call went out shortly after his conversation with the governor. questioning whether Sinnette was pro-life since he is a Democrat.
Sinnette did not have high reviews for the situation.
“I hate to be here, too,” Sinnette said at the end of his testimony. “Under these circumstances, I don’t want to be here.”