FRANKFORT — Former Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper of Lexington was found in violation of the state ethics code Monday for misusing state resources for his own financial gain.
In a settlement agreement with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Cooper admitted that he traveled to London, England, without notice or prior approval of his agency, and that he participated in events organized by a company that had a $179,900-a-year contract to promote Kentucky tourism in the United Kingdom.
Cooper resigned in February after articles about his actions were published by the Herald-Leader.
During Cooper's June 2011 visit to London, Gosh P.R. paid for his "meals, taxicabs and other activities," the ethics commission said.
After he returned from the trip, Cooper told his agency that the trip was for personal reasons. However, he later approved an invoice submitted by Gosh P.R. for reimbursement by the state for its expenses on Cooper's behalf.
The Herald-Leader reported earlier this year that Cooper allowed the state contractor to pay $735 for Cooper's meals, party tickets and other expenses during the unauthorized trip to London.
Eventually, Cooper was ordered to repay the money to Gosh P.R. Cooper helped award Gosh's contract in 2008 and signed off on its monthly billing.
During his tenure as commissioner, the ethics panel said, Cooper "generally failed to follow personnel rules for reporting travel expenses, charged personal items to a state-issued credit card without informing his agency, conducted personal business while on approved state travel, booked more expensive flights in order to combine business and pleasure travel, and showed an overall failure to keep the documentation necessary for reimbursement for business travel."
In the settlement agreement, Cooper admitted that his conduct violated the ethics code. He agreed to pay a $2,000 civil penalty, received a public reprimand and waived any right to appeal.
The Herald-Leader also reported in February that a Web site used by Gosh P.R. to promote Kentucky tourist attractions contained factual errors and offensive stereotypes about Kentucky.
State officials said they were offended by some of the site's content, including a snarky article about Roadside Bingo, a car game in which motorists count the dead animals along Kentucky highways.
After ordering the site disabled, the cabinet scrapped Gosh P.R.'s contract.
Also Monday, the ethics commission:
■ Issued an ethics charge against Margaret "Geri" Murphy, a former employee of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services who has pleaded guilty in circuit court to falsifying records in abuse and neglect cases. The ethics commission had found probable cause that Murphy failed to fulfill her duties while receiving wages and benefits.
Commission executive director John Steffen emphasized that the panel's action "is just a charge, not a final ruling" and that Murphy will have the opportunity to defend herself if she chooses.
On May 22, Murphy pleaded guilty in Anderson Circuit Court to tampering with public records in her role investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect for the state. She is to be sentenced July 24 and could be sent to prison for five years.
■ Found that former Powell County Property Valuation Administrator Betty M. Atkinson of Stanton violated the ethics code by hiring her daughter to work in the county office, eventually promoting her to chief deputy. In the commission's final order, which may be appealed to circuit court, Atkinson must pay a civil penalty of $2,000.
■ Found that Oldham County PVA Ron G. Winters of La Grange violated the ethics code by hiring his wife to work in his office, eventually promoting her to chief deputy. In a final order, which may be appealed, the commission ordered Winters to obey state hiring laws, post a copy of them in his office "as a reminder of the law," and pay a civil penalty of $5,000.
■ Found that Dallas Edward Kelly of Ashcamp in Pike County falsified time sheets, vehicle logs and mine-inspection reports, and failed to perform his duties while employed as an environmental inspector in the Department for Natural Resources. In a settlement agreement, Kelly admitted he violated the ethics code, agreed to pay a $500 civil penalty, received a public reprimand and waived any right to appeal.