Democrat Andrew Beshear, the 36-year-old son of Gov. Steve Beshear, has raised $1.48 million as the only declared candidate in the November 2015 election for Kentucky attorney general.
It's an impressive sum — incumbent Attorney General Jack Conway spent less than $1.9 million combined on his two successful campaigns — but the source of much of that money concerns ethics watchdogs and legal observers, who question how vigorously Andrew Beshear could protect the public interest as Kentucky's top law-enforcement official.
At the 87 fundraising events Andrew Beshear reported as of Sept. 30, he raked in contributions from many with a financial stake in his father's Democratic administration — executive branch political appointees, Frankfort lobbyists, state contractors and state-regulated industries, including coal, health care and banking.
Andrew Beshear, who says campaign donations would not influence his actions if he's elected, also collects from executives and political action committees of companies that have been the targets of Kentucky's attorneys general, such as highway contractor Mountain Enterprises, cigarette maker Philip Morris and for-profit Daymar College, as well as utility companies, such as Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities, for whom the attorney general is supposed to be the opponent when rate increases are requested.
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The controversy isn't a new one, even if the scale has grown. Conway was criticized as a 2010 U.S. Senate candidate for accepting donations from utility executives whose rate-increase requests his attorney general's office was supposed to scrutinize with a wary eye. Conway said at the time that, despite those donations, his interventions had saved utility ratepayers $100 million.
"The attorney general has law-enforcement powers, both criminal and civil. So you have to be very careful you don't compromise the integrity of the office by taking donations from places where — if you win — there will be questions as to how seriously you'll do the job," Scott White, who was assistant deputy to Attorney General Ben Chandler from 1996 to 2003, said last week.
"Because of its adversarial nature, I think much more caution is necessary for an attorney general candidate than for someone running for governor or the state legislature or some other elected positions," White said.
Among Andrew Beshear's donors is Carespring Health Care Management, which owns Northern Kentucky nursing homes. In 2013, the company agreed to pay $350,000 and improve patient care to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. attorney's office. The case was referred to federal prosecutors by the Kentucky attorney general's Medicaid Fraud Abuse and Control Unit following reports of patient injuries and deaths. Ten months after that settlement, three Carespring executives each gave $1,000 to Andrew Beshear to help make him the next attorney general.
"For a $1,000 contribution, nobody is going to sell their soul," Carespring spokeswoman Kathy Groob said Friday. "But when the governor asks you to help his son, that's what you do, you help his son. All you get for $1,000 is a friendly face. You don't really buy anything."
In a statement sent later by email, Kim Majick, Carespring's executive vice president for marketing and admissions, said "individuals in our organization have a long history of supporting many candidates from both parties whom we believe will make good leaders for the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
Kerri Richardson, spokeswoman for the governor, last week said "there is no coordination or relationship" between Steve Beshear's administration and Andrew Beshear's campaign. "Andy Beshear handles fundraising for his own campaign," Richardson said.
Andrew Beshear also took $1,000 at a March fundraising event from former Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, whom a federal grand jury indicted Thursday. The felony charges stem from a 2010 Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. Federal prosecutors say Blankenship personally led an effort to violate mine-safety rules at the company.
After the Herald-Leader asked about that donation Thursday, Beshear's campaign said it would refund Blankenship's money.
It's hard to see how Andrew Beshear can take "such an egregious amount of money from special interests and then turn around and serve as the people's lawyer," said Richard Beliles, chairman of ethics watchdog Common Cause of Kentucky.
"This doesn't look good because it's so unbalanced," Beliles said. "You see a donor list here that's heavy on the rich and powerful, not on the kind of people who need the protection of a strong, independent attorney general, someone who is supposed to stand up to corporations in the public interest."
Andrew Beshear declined to be interviewed for this story or answer written questions sent to him. His campaign manager, Jared Smith, who was deputy finance director for his father's 2011 gubernatorial campaign, released a statement in which Andrew Beshear said nobody will get "special treatment" from him.
"The Andy Beshear for Attorney General campaign is committed to and has followed all campaign-finance laws," Beshear wrote. "While we appreciate and have accepted contributions from hundreds of Democrats and Republicans, no contribution results or will result in any special treatment. Should I be elected, I will make every decision based on the law and what is best for Kentucky's families."
At the end of next year, state leaders in Frankfort will do the shuffle. Steve Beshear will exit, having completed the second of two terms the law allows him as governor. Conway, a Democrat finishing his own second and final term as attorney general, is one of several running to succeed Beshear. This means Conway's job is coming open.
Enter Andrew Beshear, currently a Louisville lawyer at Stites & Harbison. The younger Beshear formally declared his candidacy for attorney general just this month, but he's been raising money around Kentucky and elsewhere, including New York and Chicago events, for the past year.
Kentucky's attorney general earns $115,594 a year and has many duties. He represents the state in court; oversees local prosecutors and initiates his own criminal cases; enforces environmental and consumer-protection law; investigates Medicaid fraud; interprets the law for state agencies; and challenges utility rate increases at the Public Service Commission. (He's also commonly considered a future candidate for higher office. Steve Beshear once was attorney general.)
David Whitehouse, a Frankfort lobbyist for state-regulated utility and health-care companies, boasts on his firm's website of contacts "at the highest level" of state government. Whitehouse held one of Andrew Beshear's first fundraising events, on Dec. 10, 2013, in Lexington. It collected $20,800 from Whitehouse and some of his lobbying clients, among others.
Last week, Whitehouse said he got to know Andrew Beshear in the last few years, during Steve Beshear's second term.
"I've just enjoyed him," Whitehouse said. "He's an honest, ethical, fresh individual who has a lot of opportunity to serve the commonwealth as time goes on. It's nice that his father is governor and all, but he's just such an ethical, honest, ethical person — just really a straight shooter. He's very ethical."
Like Whitehouse, many of the people who help raise money for Andrew Beshear have a financial interest in Steve Beshear's decisions as governor and have given money in the past to the elder Beshear. But Steve Beshear is preparing to leave office and has no further need for campaign donations for himself.
Ashland lawyer William H. Jones Jr. hosted a fundraising event for Andrew Beshear on Feb. 4 that raised $24,845. Among the donors were Jones, four of his colleagues from the small firm of VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards and McCann and one of their one spouses, who provided a total of $6,000 between them.
The next month, Steve Beshear awarded the firm a contract to represent Kentucky in its constitutional defense of the state's gay marriage ban. The firm has collected $127,880 through that contract, with an expensive appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court expected next.
Jones also has given at least $40,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party since 2011. Steve Beshear appointed Jones in July to serve as a special justice on the state Supreme Court, to sit when other justices must recuse themselves. Jones did not return calls last week seeking comment on his political fundraising.
As a lawyer at Stites & Harbison, the firm where his father was a managing partner until being elected governor in 2007, Andrew Beshear's identified "service areas" include economic development. He helps companies win state tax breaks and other public assistance from the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet, run by his father's friend and appointee, Larry Hayes.
The younger Beshear also handles what Stites & Harbison calls "attorney general defense" cases. In his online professional biography, describing his legal work for corporations, Andrew Beshear says he "successfully defended clients from attorney general complaints, either securing dismissal or favorable negotiated resolutions."
If he's elected, Andrew Beshear might find himself staring across the table at some of his past — and possibly future — corporate clients while he represents the people of Kentucky, said White, the former assistant deputy attorney general.
"There's a matter of picking sides," White said.
"If you go from being a defender of certain industries to being the state's chief law-enforcement officer in charge of regulating those same industries, then you have to be aware of the perception problem," White said. "You want to make it very clear that you're not going to be some corporate toady who does whatever your supporters tell you to do. It's a perception you're going to have to overcome."
In his campaign's statement to the Herald-Leader, Andrew Beshear responded to this concern by writing: "Provided I am elected attorney general, I will have only two clients, the commonwealth and its citizens. All decisions will start and end with the law and what is best for Kentucky's families."