FRANKFORT — The Cabinet for Health and Family Services created a $63,000 job earlier this year for a woman who had dated a key lawmaker who helps oversee the cabinet.
The political appointment was made in June, at a time when many front-line positions that serve the state's most vulnerable citizens remained vacant.
Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louis ville, who is chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he recommended Carolyn Robbins, a woman he previously dated, for the administrative job but did not tell the cabinet to hire her.
Burch, 77, said he and Robbins, 64, had not dated for several months at the time he made the recommendation.
"I only recommend people who are qualified," Burch said, adding that he has recommended other people for positions at the cabinet.
Robbins, a registered Republican, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In June, Robbins was appointed deputy executive director for the Commission on Special Health Care Needs, which coordinates and helps pay for care for children with chronic health problems.
The position is a political appointment, or non-merit position, and was not advertised.
Since Robbins was hired, front-line vacancies at the commission have continued to mount as the state's finances worsen, according to personnel records. On Thursday, Health and Family Services Secretary Janie Miller said she is considering closing the commission's Hopkinsville clinic and consolidating it with other commission clinics to cut costs.
On her application, Robbins listed Burch as one of three references.
Burch said Robbins has a master's degree in nursing and has experience working with the Commission on Special Health Care Needs. Burch said he thinks the agency needs a deputy director.
"She's more qualified than some of the people that have worked there," he said on Thursday. "I walked in there 20 years ago and found one of the supervisors sleeping."
The Legislative Ethics Commission has ruled in the past that lawmakers can make suggestions on hires but cannot tell an agency what to do, said Tony Wilhoit, director of the commission. "They can't say, 'Hire this person,'" Wilhoit said.
Burch said he has previously sought advice from the Legislative Ethics Commission regarding job recommendations.
According to personnel documents obtained by the Herald-Leader through an Open Records request, cabinet officials justified creating the position for Robbins by saying that it is "essential to the ongoing operation of the program."
The commission, which was started in 1924, has not had a deputy executive director in recent times. Still, other people have served in the capacity of deputy director, even though they haven't had the title, said Vikki Franklin, a spokeswoman for the cabinet. She cited Rebecca Cecil, current executive director of the commission, who was a pharmacist for the commission but also served as de facto deputy from 2005 thru 2008.
When asked why the cabinet decided to fill an administrative position over a front-line job, Franklin noted that Robbins is a nurse. Moreover, the cabinet prefers to have a director and deputy director for each division, Franklin said.
Miller hired Robbins because she thinks she is qualified for the position, not because of Burch, Franklin said.
Franklin noted that the commission has at least four non-merit positions it has not filled and that it is working to hire four more front-line staff. Still, the commission has approximately 15 fewer staff members than it should.
Burch, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, also is under investigation by the Legislative Ethics Commission for an unrelated incident.
The commission is looking into whether Burch acted improperly when he wrote a letter to three state Court of Appeals judges on behalf of a constituent.
The commission found that there is probable cause to believe that Burch violated state laws that prohibit legislators from using their official positions to receive special treatment for themselves or others.
Burch has said his motives were pure — he was trying to help a constituent who had been through a very difficult time. He denies violating any laws when he wrote the letter.
A hearing on that matter is set for Jan. 7.