Despite confusion over his stance on federal funding for a well-known drug-fighting program in Eastern Kentucky, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul declined Wednesday to confirm his support for the task force.
On Friday, Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson, a Republican, said Paul had assured him in a telephone call seeking Johnson's endorsement that he would not seek to cut funding for Operation UNITE, a task force involved in fighting drugs in the region, or other regional drug task forces.
That statement is at odds with a perception Paul created earlier in the campaign, and one local official said it appears Paul is using "political double talk."
In July, when a county judge-executive asked Paul whether he supported UNITE, Paul did not answer the question directly but said he would "rather see drug abuse and dependency treated and paid for at the local level."
Paul explained that when tax money goes to Washington, much gets wasted so, if elected, he would work to keep more of Kentuckians' tax dollars at home to deal with problems such as drugs.
Paul did not say he would seek to cut federal funding for Operation UNITE. But that's exactly what many officials thought he meant, Magoffin County Judge-Executive Charles Hardin said.
Hardin, a Democrat, is the one who asked Paul about his support for UNITE at a convention of county-government officials in Louisville in early July.
Afterward, every local official he spoke with took Paul's answer to mean, " 'I will cut funding to drug enforcement and rehabilitation programs,' " Hardin said Wednesday.
Asked to confirm Paul had pledged not to seek to cut UNITE's funding, his campaign spokesman issued this statement Wednesday:
"Dr Paul's position has not changed. He still believes that adjudication and rehabilitation of drug abusers would be best conducted at the local level, but he has never stated there would be no federal involvement in combating our drug problem."
Paul did not answer a question on whether he supports UNITE or whether he thinks federal money that comes to other agencies and programs in Kentucky for drug enforcement and treatment should be cut.
Adjudication of drug abusers already is handled in local courts but, if drug investigations and arrests are considered part of that process, it involves federal money in many cases.
Various agencies in Kentucky receive millions of dollars annually to deal with drugs.
Local officials have said it is unrealistic to think cities and counties — especially rural or poorer counties — could deal with the drug problem without federal help.
"We need more help, not less," Hardin said.
The issue has been important in the U.S. Senate race, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, where some describe drug abuse as an epidemic and welcome every federal dollar they get to help deal with it.
It bubbled up again after a recent gaffe by the Paul campaign.
Paul's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, has held conference calls and meetings with local police to further his argument that Paul doesn't understand the seriousness of the drug problem in Kentucky.
In an effort to push back, Paul issued a news release last week listing several county sheriffs who support him.
But one sheriff on the list didn't support Paul — at least not at the time the release was issued.
After Paul called Johnson, the Clay County sheriff, a Republican, on Friday evening, however, Johnson said he was ready to support his party's nominee. Johnson said Paul assured him he would not seek to cut funding for UNITE or other regional drug task forces in Kentucky.
"It's like any other politician — you just hope they do what they say," Johnson said later that evening.
Johnson said he thinks that when Paul was first asked about UNITE at the Louisville forum, he didn't know what it was.
The task force, created by Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, serves a 29-county area of Eastern and southern Kentucky. Since 2003, UNITE detectives have arrested more than 3,500 people and seized more than 98,000 prescription pills diverted to drug trafficking. The task force has provided vouchers for more than 1,900 people to get substance-abuse treatment, said spokesman Dale Morton.
In its most recent budget, UNITE got $4 million in federal money and $2 million from the state, said Karen Engle, its director.
Hardin, a supporter of UNITE, said he wasn't convinced by Paul's assurances to Johnson. Pledging not to seek funding cuts for UNITE is not the same as supporting the task force, the Magoffin judge-executive said.
Hardin said he didn't agree with what Paul told him in July, but he thought it was a straight answer.
"Now it seems like he's wanting to use political double talk," Hardin said.
Conway continued his focus on drug issues in the campaign Wednesday, holding a round-table discussion at a homeless and recovery shelter for addicts in west Louisville.
"This is an issue that affects jobs and the economy," Conway said. "I want to be fiscally responsible, but there is a role for the federal government to play, especially in law enforcement."