Politics & Government

Did Gov. Bevin have the right to fire Lt. Gov. Hampton’s top two staffers?

Since 1995, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in Kentucky have run as a united team, ready and eager to tell voters they will work together for the good of the state. The relationships of those who win office often don’t end that way.

Kentuckians now are witnessing a bitter feud between Gov. Matt Bevin and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton that could morph into a court battle. She is more than upset over the Bevin Administration’s firing of her two top staffers, asking for prayer against the “dark forces” at work against her. She is “pursuing action” to reinstate the two staffers, but has not yet spelled out her course of action.

Not since Lt. Gov. Steve Pence parted ways with Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2006 has there been such acrimony between the state’s two top elected officials. Pence said the Fletcher administration never tried to fire any of his staff but did reassign them to other offices in state government when Pence and Fletcher had a falling out. (Pence refused to be on Fletcher’s re-election ticket after Fletcher was indicted for misuse of the state merit system to protect rank-and-file state workers. Fletcher asked Pence to resign but he refused.)

It is believed the firing of Hampton’s staffers is the first time a governor’s office has dismissed employees of a lieutenant governor. State courts have never considered the issue.

Kentuckians in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment that significantly altered the powers of the lieutenant governor. It stopped the practice of the lieutenant governor becoming acting governor when the governor was out of state, removed the lieutenant governor as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate and required candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run on a single ticket. The primary official duty of the lieutenant governor is to step into the job of governor if the governor is incapacitated or dies.

Concerning the appointing powers of the governor and lieutenant governor, the Bevin Administration points to a state law (Kentucky Revised Statute 11.040) to back up its authority to dismiss Hampton’s employees.

It says: “The Governor may appoint such persons as he deems necessary for the proper operation of his office to perform such duties as the Governor may require of them. The persons so appointed shall hold office at the pleasure of the Governor.”

Unlike the attorney general and other elected constitutional officers, who appoint their own staffs, Bevin signed the appointments for Hampton’s employees and thus has the right to fire them, his backers contend.

Hampton and her staffers note that the actual notices of dismissal were signed by Troy Robinson, director of office of administrative services in the state Finance Cabinet, and not by the governor. A review of state records by the Herald-Leader, though, shows that Bevin signed a form on Dec. 8, 2015, when he took office, to give Robinson authority to sign dismissals.

Another argument used by the Bevin Administration for the dismissals is that the state budget enacted by the General Assembly provides an appropriation to the governor’s office, which, in turn, gives money to the lieutenant governor’s office. Under this arrangement, the governor’s office controls the purse strings of the lieutenant governor’s office, including salaries for staff.

The two-year budget lawmakers approved in the 2018 General Assembly set aside about $9.1 million a year for the governor’s office and none to the lieutenant governor’s office. The governor’s office gave about $897,300 of its funding to the lieutenant governor’s office for its operations and $19,200 for her expenses.

Republican Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin (from left) speaks Monday, November 2, 2015, in front of his running mate Jenean Hampton and Kelley Paul during a Republican rally at Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport. (Bac Totrong/photo@bgdailynews.com) Daily News

‘Overstepped his boundaries’

The relationship between Bevin and Hampton grew tense in January, when Bevin announced he would seek re-election with state Sen. Ralph Alvarado as his running mate and then dismissed Hampton’s chief of staff, Steve Knipper, for not adhering to an administration policy that requires state employees running for elective office to resign. Knipper, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in the GOP primary, has appealed his firing to the state Personnel Board.

In late May, the Bevin Administration fired Hampton’s deputy chief of staff, Adrienne Southworth. The two women had worked together on Tea Party efforts in the state before coming to state government.

Bevin publicly claimed to have no knowledge of the firing and Southworth said she had no idea why she was dismissed but acknowledged that she had been investigating why Knipper was let go.

Blake Brickman

Last weekend, Bevin’s chief of staff, Blake Brickman acknowledged that he had authorized Southworth’s dismissal. He said he did so because “she demonstrated remarkably poor judgment in a number of ways.”

Hampton maintains that the firings of her two staffers were unauthorized and that Brickman “has clearly overstepped his boundaries.”

Knipper, in documents filed with his appeal to the Personnel Board, gives his take on the authority of the governor.

He said since both Bevin and Hampton are constitutional officers, his employment is “solely within the authority and discretion of the lieutenant governor, not the office of the governor.” State law allows constitutional officers like attorney general and auditor to appoint their own staffs and prepare their own budget recommendations.

Knipper’s appeal notes specified duties of the lieutenant governor — such as serving as vice chair of the State Property and Buildings Commission, vice chair of the Kentucky Turnpike Authority and a member of the Kentucky Council on Agriculture.

“When one considers the statutory duties of the lieutenant governor as set forth in KRS 11.400, it would appear that the Kentucky Legislature also contemplated that the Office of the Lieutenant Governor would require a staff, and a budget to operate her office,” Knipper’s appeal said.

Knipper argued that the offices of governor and lieutenant governor each have their own budget. He said the governor’s office misreads the meaning of the statute to justify his termination.

Knipper also noted that the governor submits a separate line item in its budget request to lawmakers for the lieutenant governor’s office.

Knipper said whatever decision the Personnel Board makes on his appeal, the issue will have to be decided in court.

Mark Wohlander, a Lexington attorney and former assistant federal prosecutor who is reviewing the dismissals, said he thinks the Kentucky Constitution and law prohibit the firing of Knipper and Southworth.

“All this is a matter that I believe the Kentucky Supreme Court will have the final say on,” he said.

Knipper and Hampton.jpg
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton congratulated Steve Knipper, her chief of staff, after he recently filed to run as a Republican for secretary of state. Jack Brammer jbrammer@herald-leader.com

Do we need a lieutenant governor?

Pence, who had a rocky relationship with Fletcher during his term from 2003 to 2007, said he recalls that “everything my office did — the budget, any hirings, any expenses — went through the governor’s office. I made my own choices for budget and staff but they always reviewed it.”

Pence, who also was secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet under Fletcher, said he does not think the office of lieutenant governor is necessary. “Several states don’t have lieutenant governors,” he said.

Five states do not have a lieutenant governor. Kentucky and 24 other states elect a lieutenant governor on a ticket with the governor. Eighteen states elect a lieutenant governor separately. In West Virginia, the Senate president, elected by state senators, is the state’s lieutenant governor. In Tennessee, state senators elect a speaker of the Senate, who also serves as lieutenant governor.

Former Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, who served with Gov. Steve Beshear from December 2011 to November 2014, said he had “an extremely positive relationship” with Beshear but “I always understood who was governor.”

“I was able to choose my staff and give my input on the office budget,” Abramson said. “The governor did not have a close relationship with his first lieutenant governor (Daniel Mongiardo) but we had been good friends for a long time and got along fine.”

The formula for a successful governor-lieutenant governor working team, said Abramson, is to make sure the lieutenant governor “always has something to do and is kept informed of what the governor is doing.”