Gov. Steve Beshear's Office of Homeland Security is becoming a popular entrance to the state payroll for his friends, Democratic political activists and donors.
This month, Ralph Coldiron — who meets all three criteria — started a $100,000-a-year job at Homeland Security as executive director of emergency telecommunications services. Previously, he worked with Beshear chief of staff Adam Edelen at Thomas & King, a Lexington restaurant franchisee. He also worked for former Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler and Gov. Wallace Wilkinson.
Coldiron joins several other political appointees at Homeland Security during Beshear's first year, some of whom stayed only a few months before taking other Frankfort posts. Previously, they drove Beshear's campaign car, raised money for Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, or handled labor issues for U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville.
Governors legally can appoint their friends and campaign supporters to state jobs outside the merit system. Most of the roughly two dozen jobs at Homeland Security fall into that category.
But critics say political appointees still should be qualified. They say it's not clear Beshear's choices have the expertise needed to safeguard Kentucky from attacks and disasters or to handle more than $17 million a year in federal homeland security grants — the stated purpose of Homeland Security.
This isn't a new controversy. In 2004, Gov. Ernie Fletcher chose a cable television lobbyist as his homeland security chief. After some criticism, he replaced the lobbyist with a retired Kentucky State Police major.
"It bothers me, some of the names I see over there who are being hired. A lot of people ask, 'Are these political payback jobs where the administration is rewarding loyalty?' " said Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, a member of the Senate committee that oversees homeland security.
Beshear's current homeland security chief is his longtime friend Thomas Preston, a Lexington public-relations executive. Preston joined the state payroll as senior adviser to Beshear for $125,000 a year and was later appointed head of Homeland Security.
Preston said he agrees that homeland security leaders should have relevant experience. His consulting firm, Preston Global, for years helped businesses and governments set up crisis-management and counterterrorism plans, he said.
However, Preston said he took the job in June, so most of the appointees were chosen earlier by Edelen, who was Beshear's original homeland security director before becoming chief of staff this summer.
Edelen on Tuesday defended his hiring — and the other appointees' — on the grounds that they are skilled managers and communicators, and those were the talents the office needed.
The Fletcher administration left Homeland Security a mess, he said, with vague or incomplete budgets, plans and job duties.
"The governor wanted me to repair an agency that had fallen into administrative disrepair," said Edelen, a one-time candidate for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. "I wasn't hired to be James Bond. I was hired to bring order."
Fletcher's homeland security director, Alecia Webb-Edgington, now a Republican state representative from Fort Wright, disputed Edelen's account. Webb-Edgington said Edelen complimented her work at a January state legislative hearing as the Beshear administration took control of Homeland Security.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Edelen feels the need to use this vital office as a political football," she said. "But with his dire lack of experience, I think we can all question the validity of his claims."
In the lower ranks, Homeland Security still has staff with law enforcement or military backgrounds who can handle intelligence reports and security strategy, Edelen said. Among its duties, the office is supposed to study the state's vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks or other disasters.
But at the top, he said, there is a need for politically savvy administrators who can forward federal grants to competing local governments, sit down with congressmen to discuss funding and craft public-relations campaigns to educate Kentuckians about keeping themselves safe.
"I think there may be a misnomer that everyone here is responsible for some CIA-like role," Edelen said.
Quality of leaders
Nationally, some experts are skeptical about the value of state homeland security programs. This year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will forward $4.36 billion to state and local governments for all sorts of programs and purchases, often outside the major cities considered the most likely terrorist targets.
Michael O'Hanlon, who studies national security at the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2006 that New York and Washington, D.C., remain vulnerable years after they suffered devastating attacks. Wyoming, on the other hand, got up to 10 times as much in homeland security funds per capita as high-risk states. Too often, he wrote, local governments get federal anti-terrorism money for basic items — such as firefighting equipment — that they should buy themselves.
The quality of homeland security leadership varies from state to state, James Jay Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said Monday.
"Some states have it under their adjutant general or at their emergency management agency," Carafano said. "Others just staff it with political hacks.
"These offices really are important, too important to be run as an outpost for political patronage simply focused on how we're going to slice up the salami."
The Beshear administration inherited Kentucky's model of a Homeland Security Office chiefly staffed by the governor's political appointees and based at the Transportation Cabinet building. (The agency's $28 million budget comes almost entirely from Washington.)
It's worth discussing whether Homeland Security in Kentucky should answer to the state's military or emergency-management leaders, Edelen said. Either way, the office definitely needs more stable leadership, he added.
"We've had five executive directors over there in less than four years," he said.
Among Beshear's appointees to Homeland Security are:
■ Aaron Horner, hired for $70,000 as deputy executive director. Previously, Horner was a campaign worker and congressional aide to Yarmuth. He has given nearly $20,000 in political donations in recent years, including to Beshear and Edelen.
■ Chuck Geveden, hired for $70,000 as chief administrative officer. Geveden worked on the campaigns of Beshear (for whom he was a driver) and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo. A one-time school-resource officer at the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, he since has taken a new job at the Transportation Cabinet. Beshear hired Geveden's father, Charles, a former lawmaker, as deputy justice secretary.
■ Paul "Will" Carle, hired for $52,000 as staff adviser. Carle, a Louisville political consultant and Democratic blogger, was the fund-raiser for Conway's attorney general campaign. Carle since has followed Edelen to the governor's office.
■ Coldiron, a Democratic activist who handled real estate and construction deals for Wilkinson, the former governor, and others. He was an aide to Baesler at Lexington city hall in the 1980s.
For six weeks in 1989, he filled in as interim Fayette County sheriff after the felony theft conviction of the incumbent sheriff.
On Monday, Coldiron pointed to his brief time behind the badge as relevant experience for his new job as director of the Office of 911 Coordinator and administrator of the Commercial Mobile Radio Service Emergency Telecommunications Board.
Much of what he does, he said, is collect monthly fees from mobile phone carriers, which helps pay for 911 systems.
Coldiron said his friendships and campaign donations — about $12,000 in recent years, including to Beshear and Edelen — didn't get him the job. He had to fill out an application and be approved as a finalist by the CMRS board before Beshear chose him, he said.
"I've known Gov. Beshear for years, and I like to think that he chose me because he was confident that I could do the job," Coldiron said.
Still, the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection asked questions at an Oct. 2 meeting about Beshear's homeland security hiring and spending. It's likely to dig deeper in coming months, said Sen. Carroll Gibson, R-Leitchfield, a panel member.
"Who is being brought into these homeland security positions?" Gibson asked. "At the top level, if we're not getting people from fields actually related to homeland security, then that's a concern."
■ Duties: Forwards grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to state and local agencies. Studies the state's vulnerabilities to prepare Kentucky for man-made or natural disasters. Runs the Intelligence Fusion Center, which links law-enforcement and public-safety agencies, gathers intelligence reports and monitors the state's infrastructure.
■ 2009 budget: $27.9 million, mostly federal funds, including $17 million available for new grants and about $9 million in committed but unspent grants. The office gets a cut of every grant it gives to other entities, usually 3 percent.
■ 22 employees, most of them political appointments
■ Based at the Transportation Cabinet headquarters in Frankfort