Property valuation administrators were warned by state officials that it would be improper for them to hire or promote a relative almost 18 months before the Executive Branch Ethics Commission voted to investigate nearly a dozen PVAs for violating nepotism rules.
The Executive Branch Ethics Commission voted Friday to begin formal investigations of 11 PVAs, including Fayette County PVA Renee True, for hiring or promoting their parents, spouses, children or siblings.
The PVAs fired back Wednesday and filed motions in Franklin Circuit Court, asking that the investigation be dismissed and that the Executive Branch Ethics Commission be held in contempt of court.
Officials with the Department of Revenue, which is part of the Finance and Administration Cabinet, said this week that they warned the PVAs that it was against state ethics rules for them to hire relatives, which has been a longstanding practice. Property valuation administrators — whose offices assess property for tax purposes — occupy the only elected county office that is considered part of state government.
Valeria Cummings, a spokes woman for Finance and Administration, said the department sent the PVAs letters in April 2007 with an advisory ethics opinion which said that state employees should not hire or promote relatives. The letters cited a rule that said an official can not use his or her official position for the financial gain of a family member.
Some PVAs have justified the hirings by saying that the Department of Revenue had OK'd the hiring or promotion of the relative. But Cummings said the Department of Revenue can only approve the filling of a position.
"Revenue approves the creation of the position, not the hiring of people," Cummings said. "Revenue does, however, make sure the individual whose names are submitted meet the minimum qualifications for that position."
Luke Morgan, an attorney who has represented the 11 PVAs during the Ethics Branch investigation, confirmed that the PVAs did receive the letter. The PVAs responded by saying they did not think that the state advisory opinion prohibited the hiring of family members. Morgan said the PVAs also made other arguments in the letter to the Department of Revenue, saying that they did not think what they were doing was wrong.
In court documents filed Wednesday, the PVAs want a judge to hold the Ethics Commission in contempt because they argue that there is no specific statute that allows the commission to investigate personnel matters.
"The commission's enabling statute makes no mention that the commission has extra-supervisory authority over personnel matters," the motion says. "Nor is there any statute that makes an expressed allowance to the commission to determine the legitimacy of another agency's hiring decision."
The PVAs want the investigation against them dismissed, the motion says.
Officials with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission could not be reached for comment Wednesday.