The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to appeal a recent federal court ruling that allows lobbyists to give gifts and campaign donations to state lawmakers.
“We thought it too important not to appeal,” said commissioner chairman George Troutman after the panel met in closed session for 23 minutes to discuss the litigation.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman in Covington struck down part of Kentucky’s legislative ethics code, ruling that state lawmakers can accept gifts from lobbyists and that lobbyists can make campaign contributions to candidates for the state legislature.
The ruling was a victory for state Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, and two Libertarian political candidates who sued in September 2015 to overturn state laws limiting campaign donations to $1,000 and prohibiting gifts to legislators from lobbyists.
Bertelsman declined to rule on the issue of campaign contribution limits, saying the issue is moot because the legislature this year doubled the limit. He did, however, rule that legislators cannot set up caucus campaign committees, which give unlimited contributions to campaigns. Caucus campaign committees gave nearly $800,000 to winning campaigns in Kentucky’s 2016 elections.
In their lawsuit, the politicians argued that the ethics laws violate their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection by restricting their access to people who want to help them.
State regulators countered that the laws were meant to prevent bribery at the state Capitol. Most of the rules were enacted after Operation BOPTROT, an FBI investigation in 1992 that exposed 15 current or former legislators who sold their votes. Don Blandford, the House speaker, was among those sent to prison.
Defendants in the case were the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission and the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, which oversees campaign spending.
Six members of the ethics commission were present at Wednesday’s special meeting and all voted for appealing the federal judge’s ruling to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Two members — Tom Jensen of London and Bob Fulkerson of Louisville — were absent. The panel has one vacancy.
Troutman said the commission will continue to use lawyers from Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office in the appeal.
John Steffen, executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, said Wednesday his agency “still is assessing our options and will decide by the deadline Monday on a possible appeal.”
The registry is using its own in-house counsel for legal representation in the case, he said.
Beshear has called the judge’s order “a very dangerous decision that opens the door for a significant amount of corruption.”
Under the order, a lobbyist pushing a certain bill could give legislators gifts or campaign contributions that could influence the vote, Beshear said.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce publicly urged the two state agencies to appeal the ruling and urged other groups that lobby the General Assembly to take similar action “to maintain the state’s current ethics system.”
“Kentucky has strong ethics laws which have guided us in the years since BOPTROT, kept our political system relatively clean and discouraged a ‘pay to play’ mentality,” said Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the chamber. “It would be a disservice to the citizens of the commonwealth to roll these reforms back. We urge the defendants of this lawsuit to file an appeal to maintain ethical boundaries in our legislative process.”