The sometimes thin line between cozy and corrupt is even harder to distinguish in the dark, as insider sales of surplus public property by the Administrative Office of the Courts remind us.
The Herald-Leader’s Daniel Desrochers recently reported that the AOC, the court system’s administrative arm, sometimes sells its surplus property at events to which only its 225 employees at the Frankfort headquarters are invited. Cozy.
There’s nothing wrong with government employees bidding on surplus property, and we’re not talking about huge sums of money. But, obviously, members of the public should also have the chance to bid, out of respect for the taxpayers who paid for the stuff in the first place. If competitive bidding increases the benefit to taxpayers even a little, that’s a good thing.
Employee-only sales are prohibited in the executive branch, but the AOC is part of the judicial branch of government and not covered by the same laws.
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The AOC’s employee-only auctions of vehicles have caught the eye of Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office which is investigating.
Inquiries by the AG and Herald-Leader have prompted an internal AOC investigation, an AOC employee being placed on leave pending the investigation and the suspension of employees-only sales.
But none of this has budged the AOC, which is overseen by the Supreme Court, from its policy of selective opacity when it comes to its own records, even though transparency is critical to public accountability.
Kentucky’s Open Records Act would require other public offices to disclose records of the vehicle sales, but, because of the separation of powers, the judicial branch is not subject to the law and so far has refused to disclose the vehicle records to this newspaper’s reporter. (It should be noted that the Supreme Court has protected the openness of court records, as it should.)
This lack of agency transparency helped enable significant abuse of taxpayer funds when the AOC launched a 15-year building binge in the late 1990s that was rife with cronyism, awarded most contracts without competitive bidding, created windfalls for a couple of well connected companies and evaded an outside audit.
In the recent case, the AOC appears to be moving quickly to address the AG’s concerns. While they’re cleaning up the insider sales, the AOC and Chief Justice John D. Minton also should consider whether the agency’s immunity from transparency is feeding a culture of patronage and preference for insiders that makes it too easy to cross the line.