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Panel: Legislator may have broken law

FRANKFORT — A Kentucky legislator might have run afoul of state law when he wrote to Kentucky Court of Appeals judges, asking them to reverse a ruling for one of his constituents in a child custody case, a state ethics commission said Monday.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission found probable cause to think that state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, violated a law that bars legislators from using their positions to try win special treatment for themselves or others. The ethics panel scheduled a public hearing next month to listen to evidence in the case.

If the panel finds that Burch did break the law, he could be reprimanded. The panel could also refer the case to law enforcement.

Burch, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, wrote a letter on official stationery to three appeals court judges asking them to reconsider a judgment terminating the parental rights of one of his constituents. The judges recused themselves from the case after receiving the letter.

The ethics panel scheduled a public hearing for Dec. 16 to hear evidence in the case. Chairman George Troutman told Burch's attorney, David Kaplan, that the commission won't consider a plea bargain.

"The commission considers this very, very serious and not to be taken lightly," Troutman said.

Burch met privately with the ethics panel for more than an hour Monday.

"My motives were pure in writing a letter for a citizen facing a very difficult time in her life," Burch said in a statement. "My service as legislator has been dedicated to representing the underdog. I do not believe my actions violated any laws. This proceeding is in its early stages, and I look forward to telling my side of the story at the hearing."

The ethics panel brought the complaint against Burch after Court of Appeals Judge Jeff Taylor notified a staff attorney about the letter.

Burch, in a preliminary statement to the ethics panel, acknowledged that he sent the letter to the judges. But he said he "did not have the conscious objective to use his position as a state representative to obtain any special privileges" for the constituent.

Troutman said the ethics panel found sufficient evidence to order next month's hearing based on a state law that prohibits lawmakers from having contact with judges pertaining to active cases "when the contact is designed to influence the outcome of the proceeding."