PIKEVILLE — A Pike County magistrate seeking re-election is the target of a so-called unauthorized campaign group that is the first formed in Kentucky since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled corporations can support or oppose candidates, not just issues, in elections.
The group Citizens for Eastern Kentucky Government has received $2,500 from The Law Office of Ray Jones & Bill Hickman and $15,000 from Utility Management Group, which operates Pike County's Mountain Water District. Ray Jones, a state senator, does legal work for UMG. They are targeting a magistrate who has been highly critical of the company in the past year.
The group began airing a television ad last week that includes images of a woman in racy clothes and says Magistrate Chris Harris "and his cronies" in the Kentucky Association of Counties have spent "our tax money on expensive hotels in New York and Washington, Christmas presents, Derby tickets, casinos, strip clubs, even call girls." The ad cites Herald-Leader articles about the spending and is airing on Suddenlink and Intermountain Cable stations, said the group's spokesman, Georgia lawyer Howard Mead. WYMT-TV in Hazard pulled the ad because of questions about its accuracy, station officials said last week.
Harris was critical of UMG's close ties to public officials and its running of the Pike County water service. Last year, he called for a state audit of the district, which he says has seen a "tremendous decline in financial condition." That audit is still pending.
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"I don't make any apologies for my efforts to clean up the mess there. If I have to stand up for the people I represent against the folks from Louisville, against liars from Atlanta, I'm going to stand for them," Harris said.
In articles published last year, the Herald-Leader never linked Harris, who is now KACo's president-elect, directly to questionable spending. A state auditor's report did not specifically implicate Harris, who was elected to be a member of the KACo board for several years, left in 2007, and returned as a member of the executive committee in November 2008.
Mead said receipts for a $2,177 three-night Washington hotel stay, including an $83 breakfast and $237 beverage tab, show Harris participated in excessive spending by the semi-public KACo, which provides various services, including insurance and legal defense, to Pike and other counties.
Harris said he stands by the trip to Washington in March 2009. He said he met with state senators and representatives, and helped secure recertification of South Williamson's floodwall on the Tug Fork. Harris said he has never submitted any expense for reimbursement by Pike County taxpayers.
Harris said he contacted Intermountain Cable and Suddenlink about the ad but does not know if they are considering pulling it.
"There has to be more to this story than what we know already. Why would these people go so far, to such great lengths, to hide their identity?" Harris said.
Early Tuesday, Mead said the "citizens of Pike County" who paid for the ad wanted to be anonymous because they feared retaliation by an elected official. Mead said he was contacted by the group's Louisville chairman and did not know who footed the bill for the ad.
Jones said he has gotten involved because "I don't like seeing good, honest people impugned," defending employees of UMG and the Mountain Water District board.
Jones said he didn't know the organizers of the Citizens for Eastern Kentucky Government, but he agreed with its aims, and "a friend" — meaning UMG officer Greg May and Mountain Water District board members — needed help.
Jones said Harris wants to take too much credit for any accomplishments on the 2009 Washington trip, and Harris criticized Mountain Water District for seeking coal severance funds to pay its debt service while asking for the same funding to pay debt service on county dump and jail projects.
Utility Management Group did not answer phone calls Tuesday. The chairman of Citizens for Eastern Kentucky Government, Ryan Stansbury, did not return phone calls from the Herald-Leader, and the man listed as the group's treasurer, Doug Wise in Louisville, said he did not want to comment.
There might have been unauthorized campaign groups before this year, said Emily Dennis, general counsel for the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, but they were supported by individuals, not corporations. Unauthorized campaign groups have to provide proof after the election that they have not coordinated with or given money to a candidate, but they are allowed to independently oppose or support a candidate. Citizens for Eastern Kentucky Government, which according to documents in the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance accepted its first donation on April 29, is the first unauthorized campaign group to register since the Supreme Court's January ruling, Dennis said.
Harris, a Democrat, is challenged in the May 18 primary by two other candidates for Pike County's 6th District magistrate's seat: Gary Bruce Thacker of Canada, and Michael Smith of Sidney.