When Kentucky's elected county officials find themselves charged with abusing their public office, worries about funding their defense usually evaporate quickly.
In most cases, a taxpayer-bought insurance policy provided through the Kentucky Association of Counties pays the legal bills of elected officials accused of crimes against taxpayers.
For example, after then-Owen County Judge-Executive William P. O'Banion was charged with theft and misspending public money last year, the $51,000 cost of his defense was picked up by the county's insurance policy through KACo.
The revelation that those lawyer bills would be paid for by the county from which O'Banion was accused of taking money came as a shock to the prosecutor in the case.
"The best I can tell is that it's a well-kept secret," said Jim Crawford, the commonwealth's attorney for Owen County who prosecuted the case. "I was surprised to find out and really disturbed by it. And I'm pretty sure the people of Owen County would be surprised that they're paying for his lawyers."
KACo considers their coverage of up to $100,000 in criminal defense fees for elected officials to be an "incidental coverage enhancement" to their county liability insurance coverage, said Joe Greathouse, KACo's director of insurance.
KACo selects criminal defense attorneys from a pool of 15 to 20 law firms and pays them $140 an hour, he said.
Greathouse said the provision doesn't add much to the total cost of a county's policy and is rarely used in comparison to the liability coverage provided to county leaders when they are sued in civil court over such things as contract disputes.
Still, insurance coverage for alleged criminal actions of elected officials is a rare perk.
Greathouse said private insurers, who are KACo's competitors, don't offer criminal legal defense coverage. Lexington's Urban County Government, which is self-insured, doesn't have such a provision, either, said Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Newberry.
Officials at the Kentucky League of Cities, which sells insurance to cities, didn't return the Herald-Leader's calls seeking comment about its policies.
With Washington County choosing KACo for its insurance on Friday, the association now provides liability insurance coverage to 112 counties. All 112 policies include the legal defense clause, Greathouse said.
KACo's criminal defense coverage applies only to elected officials, such as the judge-executive, sheriff, jailer and magistrates or commissioners. So the two appointed Owen County officials who were indicted last year along with O'Banion — the deputy judge-executive and treasurer — had to cover their own legal bills.
O'Banion, a Democrat who resigned and pleaded guilty in January to four counts of official misconduct, said he didn't know about the coverage until being told about it by KACo Executive Director Bob Arnold after his September 2008 indictment.
O'Banion also spent a decade on KACo's board of directors and served several years on the board of its insurance agency, but he said he can't remember whether the criminal defense provision was there when he joined the board in the mid-1990s.
KACo issued formal, professionally drafted policies to counties starting July 1, 1998, that included the legal defense coverage, Greathouse said. LaRue County Judge-Executive Tommy Turner, who served as KACo president that year, said the provision was also included in less formal coverage documents that pre-dated the professionally drawn up policies.
Greathouse said he didn't know how much in claims for criminal defense coverage KACo's liability insurance has covered over the last decade.
Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Clinton Thompson, a Republican, said "it was a pleasant surprise" to learn that the county's insurance through KACo would cover his defense after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges related to an alleged vote-buying scheme during the 2006 election.
"It's all taken care of through KACo," said Thompson.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Pikeville convicted Thompson last year, although he is appealing. Thompson said he didn't know how much the county's insurance policy paid for his legal bills, although he is paying for his appeal out of his own pocket.
John Logan Brent — the judge-executive in Henry County, which recently switched the county's insurance from KACo to a private company — said he didn't know about KACo's criminal defense coverage.
Insurance to cover legal fees for being sued is necessary, he said. For instance, Brent said a man once sued him after the county ordered the man to clean up junk from his yard. A judge dismissed the case, but only after Brent gave a deposition.
But he said paying for officials' criminal defense is another matter.
"If it has something to do with their job and they're found innocent then I could see the reason for it," he said. "If they're found guilty, perhaps they should pay those costs back."
Owen County Judge-Executive Carolyn Keith, who replaced O'Banion in February, said she was initially concerned that the $51,000 cost of O'Banion's defense would cause an increase in the county's insurance premiums.
To her relief, KACo's rates slightly decreased this year, she said.
Still, Keith said, it was startling to hear that the county's insurance would cover O'Banion's tab.
"That's actually the taxpayers' money," she said, adding that it only amplifies public mistrust of officials. "That's how I felt when this happened in Owen County. It's like an epidemic in this state, and it's got to stop."