During the cold winter of early 1993, I was assigned to cover the trial of Bruce Wilkinson, the nephew of former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, who was accused and ultimately convicted of trading a government favor for money while he worked in his uncle's office in the Capitol.
It was the first trial in the BOPTROT scandal that revealed a very seamy underside to Kentucky politics. Among other things, we learned that votes in the General Assembly sold for as little as $100.
A business reporter and daughter and granddaughter of retailers, all I could conclude was that the statesmen must have been doing a volume business to make it worth the risk of prosecution.
I later learned Kentucky earned 8th-place honors in an analysis of public corruption among states in that era.
With 188 public corruption convictions between 1993 and 2002, Kentucky beat out 42 other states.
Often, when people talk about the relationship between business and government, the conversation focuses on the ruinous effects of taxes, regulations, labor laws, etc.
But my years in Kentucky have made me think there's not nearly enough discussion about how corruption affects our economic life.
Every time a debate arises about economic development incentives, for example, the people pushing them say competition for employers is so intense Kentucky will lose out if we don't give away tax revenue.
But we can lose out just as easily because we have a culture of public corruption. Locating a business is all about making an investment, and who would choose to invest where there's a significant risk of corruption?
How does a business know it can count on roads being maintained, public utilities providing the best service at the lowest cost, the police and courts treating all fairly, schools hiring the best educators they can find?
How does an investor know government officials will spend public money wisely and transparently to build and maintain essential infrastructure?
So, with this in mind, consider a few of the stories in this past week's papers and stack them up against economic development brochures:
■ Cletus Maricle, a former Clay County circuit court judge, was sentenced to 26 1/2 years in federal prison Thursday for orchestrating a vote-buying conspiracy.
■ Seven others have been convicted in the Clay County conspiracy, including the former Clay County school superintendent, former county clerk, a former magistrate, the county's Democratic election commissioner and a precinct worker.
From the private sector, the convictions include a man who owned a garbage company that got local contracts, and his wife.
■ According to an affidavit by a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an alleged drug dealer in Whitley County said he supplied pain pills to a former county sheriff while he was still in office.
The former sheriff, who denies the allegations, has been indicted by a local grand jury on charges that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money while in office and sold or gave away guns that had been confiscated in investigations.
■ A former state highway official was found by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission to have violated the state ethics code by using his position to get pit and parking passes for NASCAR races.
■ In the legislative branch, the ethics commission is looking into the $171,000-plus collected by a company owned by Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, from a public water and sewer utility in Pike County on contracts that were neither bid nor publicly discussed.
■ And, in this environment, we learned that state Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, failed to attend four of six mandatory annual ethics sessions for legislators.
Denton, brushing off her absences, noted that many lawmakers just sign in, "then leave and go back upstairs to their offices," or "stay but they basically read newspapers the whole time and don't pay attention."
Well, at least they're reading newspapers. Perhaps stories about the convictions and sentences will make an impression.
It's funny, except it's not.
How could Kentucky — a state blessed with remarkable natural resources, a superb location, talented and gritty people — prosper in this environment?
It's a sad irony that, in these days when the halls of the state Capitol and Congress ring with denunciations of rule-making, "business-killing" government agencies, you hear so little about the damning, demoralizing, job-destroying role of public corruption.
Kentucky's history and culture of public corruption makes for good stories. It doesn't, and it never will, make for good business.