Since 2001, the Kentucky Association of Counties' liability insurance plan has paid for more than $300,000 worth of criminal defense bills for five elected county officials accused of crimes related to their job.
The Herald-Leader reported Wednesday that a provision in the insurance policy that KACo has sold to 112 counties covers defense attorney fees for elected county officials who are accused of having abused the public's trust.
That revelation drew sharp criticism from state Auditor Crit Luallen, who announced Wednesday that her office would audit KACo.
"We were appalled that public funds have underwritten" officials' criminal defenses, she told the newspaper. "I think it's entirely inappropriate."
Over the last eight years, KACo has paid $306,263 for the criminal defense bills of three judge-executives, a clerk and a jailer, said Joe Greathouse, KACo's director of insurance.
That total doesn't include pending cases, including the high-profile case of Barren County Jailer Leland Cox, who is accused of sexually abusing female employees at the jail.
Cox, according to the Glasgow Daily Times, confessed to investigators on July 24, 2008, shortly after his arrest.
"I've messed up in the last year or so morally," Cox said in a taped confession that the Daily Times obtained through an Open Records request. "I let the devil get to me on a weakness I didn't know I had."
Cox entered an Alford plea to the charges in January, meaning he didn't admit guilt but acknowledged that there was enough evidence against him.
As part of the plea, he has agreed to retire Jan. 2, 2010.
Cox's attorney, chosen and paid for by KACo's insurance, is Bobby Richardson, a former speaker of the Kentucky House. He is representing Cox in civil and criminal cases related to the allegations.
Jail workers also have filed a lawsuit against the county, whose lawyer fees are being covered by KACo's insurance policy.
Greathouse said the case is active, so KACo hasn't received the claim for Cox's criminal defense yet.
In addition, Greathouse said, Bourbon County Jailer Tony Horn, who was indicted last year on charges of tampering with public records related to the death of an inmate, has not yet put KACo "on notice to provide counsel."
The three county judge-executives whose criminal defenses were covered by KACo insurance were:
■ Former Owen County Judge-Executive William P. O'Banion, a Democrat who pleaded guilty to four counts of official misconduct and resigned in January. O'Banion served on KACo's board of directors for nearly a decade after becoming judge-executive in 1999. The criminal defense provision in the policy predated his tenure on the board.
■ Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Clinton Thompson, a Republican who was convicted by a federal jury last year on charges related to a vote-buying scheme. He remains in the post during his appeal, which is not being covered by the county insurance.
■ Morgan County Judge-Executive Timothy Conley, a Republican who was indicted in 2007 on three counts of abusing the public trust. The indictments were dismissed on a technicality, and Conley was later pardoned by then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher.