The Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission improperly punished property valuation administrators accused of nepotism, a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled this week.
Judge Phillip Shepherd reversed decisions by the ethics commission against three PVAs accused of violating the state ethics code by hiring or promoting a family member.
Shepherd's ruling affected Harlan PVA Felicia Wooten, Leslie County PVA James D. Wooton and Ron G. Winters, the PVA in Oldham County.
In his ruling, Shepherd said the commission's actions were "arbitrary and outside the scope of its authority."
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"This court finds elimination of nepotism in state government to be worthy cause, but the laudable purpose of the commission cannot substitute for the lack of clear legislative authority," the ruling said. "The legislature, not any administrative agency, is charged with the constitutional authority to make policy decisions of this nature."
The ethics panel considers locally-elected PVAs to be state officials attached to the Kentucky Department of Revenue, making them subject to the state ethics code that says officials can't use their positions to obtain financial gain for family members. PVAs assess the value of property for tax purposes.
Ethics commission Executive Director John Steffen said Wednesday that he had not yet read the order in its entirety, but he expected the commission to appeal.
"I'm very disappointed," Steffen said. "We will appeal any order that says it is OK or acceptable for state employees to create dynasties for themselves by the systematic hiring of members of their own families."
Luke Morgan, an attorney representing the three PVA's, said Wednesday that "my clients have done nothing wrong."
"They have been enduring these allegations since 2008 and are delighted to see that the judge agrees with them," Morgan said.
The commission found that Felicia Wooten had violated the ethics code by promoting her son, but Wooten was not fined. James D. Wooton had been charged with hiring his daughter for part-time seasonal work in the PVA office and was fined $4,000. Ron Winters was charged with promoting his wife from deputy to chief deputy and was fined $5,000, according to the ruling.
Shepherd's ruling said the commission presented no evidence that the relatives had done anything wrong or were unqualified.
In all, 11 PVA's filed lawsuits in 2008 challenging the commission's rulings. The charges against the PVAs were dismissed in 2009 by Shepherd, who ruled PVAs aren't subject to the ethics panel's juridiction. That ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals.
Six of the 11 PVAs have settled their cases or paid fines, including former Fayette County PVA Renee True, who resigned in 2008 and now goes by Renee Harper. The commission had charged that she hired her mother in violation of state ethics laws.
Two other PVAs, Taylor County's Julie Shields and Laurel County's Joyce Parker, still have lawsuits challenging the commission's decisions before Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas D. Wingate, Morgan said.