When the boards of Kentucky's public universities became too laden with Republican Party members in 2007, former Attorney General Greg Stumbo found a "clear violation" of the law and took the extraordinary step of filing suit against the person who made the appointments — former Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
Fletcher lost his re-election bid that year, and the man who defeated him, current Gov. Steve Beshear, settled the case. Beshear agreed to follow laws requiring the state's collegiate boards to reflect the ratio of registered Democrats and Republicans in Kentucky.
Eight years later, under Beshear, the boards of Kentucky's three biggest colleges are even more politically out of whack.
An analysis by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found these boards overloaded with Democrats. Not only that, the current boards of the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System are dominated by party members who helped bankroll the campaigns of the man who appointed them: Beshear.
"I think they are selling access to seats on these very prestigious boards," said Steve Robertson, the outgoing chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky. "Unless you support his (Beshear's) personal, political endeavors, you don't have a chance of serving an institution that you may have a very strong affinity for. You've got to pay to play."
Robertson conceded that college boards were out of political balance under Fletcher, but he also said the "deviations" weren't as great as they are now.
Across the country, state university trusteeships are prestigious positions that are often filled by political supporters. Kentucky law attempts to limit that. It requires that the governor's appointees to state university boards reflect the ratio of registered Democrats and Republicans in the state — or 52.9 percent Democrat, 39.1 percent Republican.
Currently, the governor-appointed members of the U of L board include 12 Democrats and three Republicans (11 to four before Murray doctor Robert Hughes switched his registration to Democrat in 2014). Two of its members are registered independents. Applying the state's "proportional representation" statute and the current 52.9 percent to 39.1 percent ratio of voters registered with the two major parties, U of L should have about nine Democrats and six or seven Republicans. The other one or two could belong to any party.
The imbalance gets worse at UK and KCTCS. Twelve of Beshear's 16 appointees to the UK board are Democratic, four Republican. Under state law, it should be eight or nine of the former and six of the latter.
Seven of the eight governor-appointed regents at KCTCS are Democrats, versus one Republican. The ratio should be closer to five to three, according to state law.
Beshear, at the Fancy Farm picnic last Friday, blamed the imbalances on the appointment process itself.
"You go through these cycles where you have terms that are ended at different times, you've got appointments that come up at different times and you try, as much as you can, to meet all of the different factors that are in the statutes — geography, race, party — and so at any one time, you're going to be off balance somewhere," he said.
But Kentucky law allows for no such excuses in not fulfilling the "proportional representation" of parties on state university boards. As Stumbo wrote of Fletcher in 2007: "Gov. Fletcher has failed to make appointments to state university boards that faithfully reflect the political choices and makeup of the people of Kentucky."
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting made Attorney General Jack Conway aware of the Democrat-heavy boards of U of L, UK and KCTCS. A spokeswoman for Conway — the Democratic candidate for governor — gave the following statement: "We will independently review the numbers you provided. If the boards are not in compliance, we will communicate that to Gov. Beshear."
Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Mont., said drawing too heavily from political supporters makes for a homogeneous board.
"Governors who are making appointments to commissions and boards should have representatives from various walks of life, various constituencies, not just their donor constituencies," he said. "This is obviously taking the easy way out, finding donors who have both the money and the time to devote to a commission."
Based on their campaign giving in 2011, the U of L board resembles a Beshear fan club. All 17 trustees appointed by Beshear gave money to his re-election bid, even the Republicans. Those 17 and their spouses gave a combined $53,000 to Beshear's re-election campaign in 2011, while giving only $1,000 to his Republican opponent, David Williams. That $1,000 donor, Louisville financial planning firm owner Ron Butt, saw fit to give $2,000 to Beshear.
Previous Beshear appointees who have completed their terms on the U of L board gave $14,000 to Beshear in 2011, along with their spouses. They gave nothing to Williams.
The pattern holds true for the UK board, 16 of whose 20 members are appointed by the governor. Those appointees and their spouses gave $28,650 to Beshear in 2011, and nothing to Williams. Throw in the money from earlier appointees, and the score grows to $33,650 to $0.
Kentucky college boards also have members drawn from faculty, staff and students. They are not appointed by the governor.
Fletcher, the state's last Republican governor, was just as obliging to his political benefactors. His U of L appointees and their spouses gave $30,775 to his 2007 re-election bid, versus $3,000 to Beshear. They gave Fletcher's campaign $17,500 in 2003, versus $5,000 to Democrat Ben Chandler.
Kentucky governors wield power in ways that go beyond presiding as chief commonwealth executive and signing bills into law. The victor of the gubernatorial race in November will gain the right to populate nearly 400 boards, commissions, councils, authorities and panels that govern a wide variety of matters, including judicial nominations, professional licensing and egg marketing.
Nothing in state law precludes governors from naming campaign donors or friends as U of L and UK trustees and KCTCS regents. Appointees certainly don't seek board seats for the pay (expenses only), and any thought of monetary gain would be all but snuffed out by ethics rules that prohibit or discourage financial self-dealing.
"I think a lot of people want to be on the boards of their alma mater, especially UK and U of L, which are prominent in the state and there's a lot of prestige associated with it," said Mike Hammons, appointments secretary to Gov. Brereton Jones from 1991 to 1994.
"I think people want to be with the president, they want to be involved in what's going on at those institutions and they very much want to get access to the best seats for the sports programs," said Hammons, now director of advocacy for the non-profit Children Inc. in Covington.
Davy Jones, a professor of toxicology at the UK College of Medicine, said he was not aware of the heavy flow of campaign money from board members to the governors who appointed them. Most faculty members, he said, want trustees to be chosen on merit.
"You want people on the board of trustees who are interested in and engaged in" helping faculty achieve the university missions of instruction, research and public service, Jones said.
Of the 31 U of L trustees and spouses who contributed to the Beshear campaign in 2011, 22 gave the state maximum of $2,000. Of the 21 UK trustees and spouses who contributed to Beshear in 2011, eight gave $2,000. And of the 11 KCTCS regents and spouses who gave, six gave $2,000.
But the money doesn't stop there. According to state election finance records, James Booth, a Republican coal company owner on the UK board, lavished $100,000 on the Beshear inaugural committee in 2011. Four years earlier, Louisville eye doctor Edward Brockman and Georgetown car dealer Frank Shoop — both on the UK board — gave $10,000 apiece to Beshear's first inauguration, as did U of L trustee and 21c Museum Hotels co-owner Steve Wilson.
"At some point," said Robertson of the Kentucky GOP, "the governor has to do what state law requires him to do, and it's clear that he really doesn't care for that. He wants to reward political supporters or, it would seem, mandate that someone become a political supporter in order to receive it."