No complaints in mine-permits director's file

Gov. Steve Beshear's administration recorded no complaints about the performance of Ron Mills, director of the state Division of Mine Permits, until it fired him without explanation last month, according to a review of Mills' personnel file and internal state correspondence.

"This action is being taken without a determination of cause," the Energy and Environment Cabinet told Mills in the Nov. 13 letter dismissing him after 16 months in his appointed post.

In recent interviews, Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters said he fired Mills because of his long-standing dissatisfaction with Mills' performance as a manager. But Mills has said he never heard any complaints from Peters before he was fired.

Nothing in Mills' Cabinet personnel file or in correspondence between Peters, Mills and other Cabinet managers revealed any complaints, other than talk about the Division of Mine Permits being chronically underfunded and understaffed.

Mills, 54, appealed his dismissal Monday at the state Personnel Board, citing age and political discrimination and his "refusal to issue permits based upon an illegal policy." He declined to elaborate in a brief interview Tuesday, saying he was uncomfortable with all the attention his case is receiving.

Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown said Peters stands behind his explanation for firing Mills, a political appointee who served at the pleasure of the governor.

"Non-merit employees can be fired without cause. There's typically very little in their personnel file," Brown said. "Dr. Peters has stated what happened regarding the firing. Now that Mr. Mills has initiated a personnel action, we'll work in that process."

Mills has said he thinks he lost his job because he opposed a controversial mining policy that benefited Alliance Coal of Tulsa, Okla., and tried unsuccessfully to block five mine permits the company sought in Hopkins and Webster counties. Alliance Coal has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations, including to Beshear and the Kentucky Democratic Party.

State records obtained by the Herald-Leader show that Raymond "Rusty" Ashcraft, an Alliance Coal executive in Lexington, often consulted with the Beshear administration on issues concerning his company and the coal industry. Records also show that after Mills blocked Alliance Coal's five permits in Western Kentucky last year, higher-ups in the administration overruled him to "accommodate the coal interests," as officials phrased it in one e-mail message.

Mills said he was warned in the months before his firing that Ashcraft and the governor's office wanted him gone because he opposed the so-called "331⁄3 rule," which allows coal companies, such as Alliance Coal, to mine without showing they have the legal right to enter all the land in its plans. Environmentalists say the policy is illegal, and they will sue to block it.

Beshear has denied any role in the firing, and Ashcraft has declined to discuss it. But an e-mail message that Ashcraft sent Nov. 13, obtained by the Herald-Leader, shows the coal executive telling his colleagues about Mills' firing within minutes of the event happening.

Prior to Beshear appointing him as mine-permits director last year, Mills spent 22 years as a state lawyer representing the natural resources agencies in coal-mining litigation, including the 2000 coal-slurry spill in Martin County that unleashed several hundred million gallons of sludge into waterways. He supervised an office with 15 lawyers and five other employees.

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