Politics & Government

Fletcher wants new judge assigned to case

FRANKFORT - Gov. Ernie Fletcher wants a new judge in his case of violating state personnel laws.

Fletcher's attorney, R. Kent Westberry of Louisville, filed documents yesterday in Franklin District Court, seeking recusal of Judge William "Guy" Hart Jr. and asking that the state's chief justice assign a special judge.

Westberry claimed there are three reasons why Hart "will not be able to afford Governor Fletcher a fair and impartial trial." In the court filings, Westberry said that:

 Missy McCray, a state Transportation Cabinet personnel official who is a witness for the prosecution, is a friend of Hart and his wife, Shirley Hart.

Westberry noted that Hart voluntarily recused himself from presiding over a case regarding personnel laws against Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert so as not to create any appearance of impropriety.

 Shirley Hart was involved with the state employee non-classified system as an assistant director of operations for the state House.

That system involving state workers in appointed managerial roles will be a subject in the prosecution and defense of Fletcher, Westberry said.

 Hart recently made statements to the media, specifically The Courier-Journal, "regarding his intentions and thought processes regarding the conduct of the arraignment of Governor Fletcher, and also expressed an opinion as to how long the trial of the matter would take, potentially affecting Governor Fletcher's rights to a speedy trial."

Hart also made "off the record" statements to other reporters Friday to which counsel for Fletcher was not privy, Westberry said.

Fletcher asserts that "a real and actual appearance of impropriety exists" and that Hart will not afford Fletcher a fair and impartial trial, Westberry said.

Hart did not return a phone call for comment.

Westberry sent a letter to Franklin Circuit Court Clerk Janice Marshall, asking that she send his legal filings to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert.

Lambert had no comment on Westberry's requests.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the authority of the special Franklin County grand jury, empaneled last year at the request of Attorney General Greg Stumbo to investigate hiring practices in the Fletcher administration.

It indicted Fletcher last week on three misdemeanor charges of violating state hiring laws.

Lambert has recused himself from the Supreme Court case involving the grand jury's authority.

Asked yesterday if Lambert also should recuse himself from appointing a special judge to replace Hart, Westberry said it is not his practice to comment on pending motions.

Westberry did say Fletcher's legal requests were not a reflection on Judge Hart's professionalism.

Stumbo had no immediate comment on Westberry's filings. "The governor's criminal lawyers have served this pleading on the press and not the attorney general," said Stumbo spokeswoman Vicki Glass. "Obviously, we cannot comment on the content of a pleading we have not received."

Fletcher's arraignment is scheduled for June 7.

He has said he will plead not guilty.

At a news conference yesterday, Fletcher said he is scheduled to be on vacation that week but will appear at his arraignment if he is legally required to do so.

Cave's claims discussed

Fletcher also was asked about comments by his chief of staff, Stan Cave, relating to the hiring investigation.

Cave told the Herald-Leader Monday that he thinks U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, is a driving force behind the investigation either because he is planning to run for governor next year or is seeking vengeance for his 2003 defeat by Fletcher.

Chandler and Stumbo -- both Democrats -- have dismissed Cave's comments as "ridiculous" and "ludicrous."

The Republican governor, who has said he will seek re-election next year, said he will leave Cave's comments to Cave but he "has heard a lot of that, and we've heard it for quite awhile."

He said Chandler has "close ties" to Scott Crawford-Sutherland, the assistant attorney general working with the grand jury.

Fletcher urged reporters to investigate Stumbo's office as vigorously as they have his office.