Gov. Steve Beshear has named former state House Democratic Whip Joe Barrows of Versailles to the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security.
Barrows started last week as executive director of the Office of the 911 Coordinator and the Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board, which is attached to Homeland Security. He will get $81,000 a year to collect user fees from wireless phone carriers and help improve 911 services around the state.
Barrows created the CMRS Board in 1998 as a lawmaker by sponsoring the relevant legislation.
"It was one of the neater things that I got involved with," said Barrows, a lawyer who sat in the House from 1980 to 2006. "It isn't sexy or flashy or controversial. It really flies under the public's radar, but it's important."
Barrows said he decided to apply after reading newspaper stories about the resignation of Ralph Coldiron, who quit the post in January when the Herald-Leader asked about the legality of a controversial pay raise he received. At the time, Coldiron was in a land-development business with Beshear chief of staff Adam Edelen and Frankfort lobbyist Bob Babbage.
The CMRS Board sent to the governor the names of three applicants it considered well qualified, and from them, Beshear chose Barrows, said Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton.
"His quarter-century of public service and leadership in the General Assembly, along with his undeniable budgetary and legal expertise, made him a natural choice for this position," Blanton said.
Other Beshear appointees to Homeland Security have included his former campaign driver, a Democratic Party blogger who was also a fund-raiser for Attorney General Jack Conway and a former staffer to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville.
Barrows sponsored a fund-raiser in 2007 for Beshear's gubernatorial campaign and has given about $24,000 in recent years to the Kentucky Democratic Party and Democratic politicians other than himself. But on Thursday, he said it was his political and legal skills that won him the job, not his party ties.
The job is a non-merit political appointment. Its first occupant under then-Gov. Paul Patton was John Patterson, who had technical expertise in 911 systems from his past career at the Lexington fire department, where he helped to install 911 programming at the dispatch center. Patterson made $72,000 after five years.
Subsequent governors have awarded the position to those with scant relevant background. At the same time, the salary rose to between $80,000 to $100,000 a year. To compensate for the lack of expertise, the CMRS Board in 2006 added a staff assistant who had 12 years of communications experience in the Kentucky State Police. She makes about $64,000 a year.
"No, I don't necessarily have technical expertise, and yes, I've got a learning curve ahead. But I think my background as a legislator helps me with my learning curves," Barrows said.
In 1998, the Legislative Ethics Commission chided Barrows because of legislative aides who did campaign work for him on state time. Barrows denied knowing of the improper campaign work, and the ethics commission did not dispute that, but it said Barrows should have been more careful.
The aides worked under the direction of Barrows' longtime friend Kent Downey, also of Versailles, a top House aide who pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution and gambling. It was part of a scandal in which Downey put strip-club employees on the state payroll and used his legislative office to arrange golf outings featuring nude dancers.
Barrows provided legal counsel to Downey during the investigation. In a 1998 report, the ethics commission said Barrows "would have been better served if he had withdrawn from the case."