FRANKFORT — The two men seeking Kentucky's top law enforcement job on Nov. 8 say they would wield the power offered by one of state government's most important positions in dramatically different ways.
If re-elected, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway says he will continue prosecuting Medicaid fraud, rooting out possible improprieties in for-profit colleges, busting child pornographers and working with law enforcement to eradicate prescription drug abuse.
Republican challenger Todd P'Pool, the Hopkins County attorney, says he wants to strengthen the office's public corruption unit and create a "federalism unit" inside the agency to challenge expansion of the federal government's reach.
In particular, P'Pool says he is running because Conway has not done enough to fight burdensome federal regulation of the coal industry and did not join a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of a federal overhaul of health insurance.
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Aside from their contrasting platforms, the two candidates have spent much of their time slinging insults and questioning the other's prosecutorial independence.
"He is completely disengaged from local prosecutors," P'Pool said of Conway. "That's why I have the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. I mean that's unprecedented — they have rejected the sitting attorney general."
Conway has said P'Pool understands little about the office — which employs about 200 people and has an annual budget of $25 million.
The attorney general is charged with protecting consumers from all manner of fraud, interpreting the state's open meetings and open records laws, regulating charitable organizations, and helping to investigate a wide array of crimes, ranging from elder abuse to child pornography. The position pays $110,346 a year.
In a time of tight budgets, it would not be wise to divert resources away from fighting crimes and protecting consumers and toward challenging the federal health insurance overhaul, Conway has said.
He also has questioned P'Pool's ethics.
"I know that he has specifically gone out and tried to raise money from people that we are currently investigating," Conway said. "To me, that is a conflict of interest and is tantamount to putting a for sale sign on the office of attorney general."
Conway has consistently led the lesser-known P'Pool in publicly-released polling, and he enjoys a considerable edge in fund-raising. The most recent campaign finance reports, filed last week, show Conway with a sizable campaign kitty of $500,000 left in the final weeks before the election. P'Pool had only $84,000 left to spend in his general election account.
In all, Conway has raised $711,405, compared to $485,000 for P'Pool. In addition, an independent group called The Bluegrass Democratic Attorney General Association — which supports Conway — reported a balance of $582,816 in recent campaign finance reports.
Conway has the backing of key Democrats, including state auditor Crit Luallen, the National Rifle Association, a host of unions, and dozens of law enforcement officers and commonwealth and county attorneys.
In addition to the state's Fraternal Order of Police, P'Pool has garnered support from national Republican figures, Fayette County attorney Larry Roberts, a Democrat, and attorneys general from Oklahoma and Virginia.
P'Pool charges that Conway's office is too political, citing an ongoing investigation of the state's for-profit college industry as an example.
Conway held a news conference in the Capitol last December to announce that he had launched an investigation of business practices at for-profit colleges, issuing civil subpoenas to seven institutions.
By announcing the investigation, Conway tarnished the entire industry, P'Pool said.
So far, Conway has taken legal action against Daymar College, Brown Mackie College and National College, alleging that they defrauded students and manipulated government-tuition assistance programs.
Meanwhile, P'Pool has accepted campaign contributions from employees of for-profit colleges that received subpoenas, at least one of which cited the ongoing investigation as it encouraged employees to give to P'Pool.
P'Pool said he does not think there was anything wrong with accepting the contributions from a possible target of a civil investigation.
"As a small-town prosecutor, I've had to prosecute my friends and neighbors," he said.
P'Pool also has questioned whether Conway can give an independent opinion on the controversial merger of key hospitals in Louisville because Conway — while in private practice — successfully won a $9 million medical malpractice case against the University of Louisville hospital in 2004.
Conway counters that the malpractice case — which is currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court — does not affect his duties as attorney general or his legal opinions regarding the University of Louisville.
The 2004 case was appealed by the hospital's insurance carrier, which will ultimately be responsible for the judgment if it is upheld. Conway is no longer an attorney on the case.
"It cannot affect me financially," Conway said of the merger. "... My opponent is remarkably uninformed of the facts and the law."
'A strong record'
Conway grew up in Louisville, the oldest of four siblings. He graduated from Duke University and got a law degree from George Washington University. He worked for former Gov. Paul Patton in various senior-level positions for six years. He was in private practice before running for attorney general in 2007.
He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2010 in a contentious race against Rand Paul, a favorite of the Tea Party movement.
Luallen worked with Conway in the Patton administration and has worked closely with his office on several high-profile cases over the past four years. Luallen said Conway is an advocate for Kentucky consumers and has been unafraid to pursue cases against the powerful and the politically connected.
"I've seen him take on drug companies, utility companies and even most recently proprietary education," Luallen said. "He has a strong record of accomplishments, achievements and integrity that really positions him well to serve Kentucky for a second term."
On the campaign trail, Conway touts his record of managing his own office wisely — cutting his staff by 30 percent, cutting his pay by 10 percent while at the same time increasing Medicaid fraud collections and taking 300,000 child pornography images off the Internet.
Conway's detractors have focused heavily on his involvement in a controversy surrounding his brother, Matt Conway, a former prosecutor in Jefferson County.
The Republican Party of Kentucky has repeatedly questioned why Conway did not alert authorities when his brother was tipped off by police that he may be under investigation for possible drug-related activities.
Matt Conway was never prosecuted for any wrongdoing but has since left the commonwealth attorney's office. A police officer who allegedly told the younger Conway that there had been a complaint about him was fired, then reinstated.
Jack Conway said he only helped his brother get a lawyer and told him to take responsibility for his actions.
"Anyone who has looked at this has concluded that I've done nothing wrong," Conway said. "I didn't intervene and I didn't interfere ... They are creating a story out of thin air."
Not a 'good ol' boy'
P'Pool was born in Madisonville but later moved after his parents got divorced. P'Pool said he and his single mother often lived with relatives to make ends meet.
He returned to Madisonville after high school and went to community college before attending the University of Kentucky for both undergraduate and law school.
He did not pass the bar exam on the first try — failing one portion of the exam. P'Pool said he simply had a bad day. He later re-took the test and passed.
"I have had a very successful law practice over the past 10 years," P'Pool said.
Larry Roberts said he endorsed P'Pool over Conway, who he has supported in the past, because he believes P'Pool will be a better advocate for front-line prosecutors.
"I know that he is a very hard working young man," Roberts said. "I think he has done a fantastic job with child support. I just feel that he is more in touch with prosecutors."
As a county prosecutor, P'Pool said he has valuable experience with the criminal justice system that Conway lacks.
P'Pool was the sole Republican to be elected to county office in the heavily Democratic Hopkins County in 2006. He was re-elected in 2010 after a contentious race with Democrat John Whitfield.
P'Pool has garnered three awards from the state for outstanding child support collection, but he also was admonished twice by the state for not keeping accurate records of hours he billed the state to collect child support.
Hank Hinton, a Democrat and longtime defense attorney in Madisonville, said he does not have a favorable impression of P'Pool, who has had contentious relationships with other county officials.
"He's never in court," Hinton said of P'Pool as county attorney.
Hinton, who has contributed to Conway, said he has concerns about P'Pool's integrity after P'Pool was sued in 2007 by a former client who said P'Pool took more than his fair share of a $500,000 judgment.
P'Pool had represented a man who was falsely accused of doing a lewd act in a local Dollar General Store. He agreed to take the case on a 40 percent contingency fee. The man won a $500,000 judgment and the case was eventually appealed.
P'Pool hired another attorney to write the appeal and paid for that lawyer out of the client's portion of the judgment, which later accrued to more than $630,000 with interest. The client's case against P'Pool was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.
In court documents, P'Pool argued that the client had verbally agreed to pay for the appellate lawyer out of his portion of the judgment, but the client never signed an amended contract.
P'Pool declined to comment on the case. Charlie Ricketts, P'Pool's lawyer, also said he could not comment because of a confidentiality agreement attached to the settlement.
P'Pool said his political stripes are what motivates detractors in Hopkins County, noting that he is not a "good ol' boy."
"The good-ol'-boy clique did not elect me in 2006 and they did not re-elect me in 2010," P'Pool said. "I was elected by soccer moms and hard working people."