Politics & Government

Agreement to settle reportedly in progress

FRANKFORT - Negotiations are under way for a possible agreement to drop the three criminal misdemeanor charges against Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Representatives for Fletcher and Attorney General Greg Stumbo have been trying to hammer out a deal this week that would effectively end the lengthy legal case against the governor regarding allegations of improper state hiring.

A judge ruled earlier this month that Fletcher could not be tried on the charges until he left office. In the meantime, Fletcher remains under indictment. He has pleaded not guilty.

The governor's attorneys have been scrambling recently to figure out their next step, which could be to appeal that ruling or ask for a speedy trial.

Asked yesterday about the status of the negotiations, Stumbo's spokeswoman, Vicki Glass, said, "I cannot discuss the case per the court's direction. No settlement order has been entered." She did not elaborate.

Fletcher's attorney, Kent Westberry of Louisville, said he could not comment. Jodi Whitaker, Fletcher's press secretary, also said she had no comment.

State Democratic legislative leaders were put on notice yesterday that something could happen -- but weren't told what.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, said he was advised only to be ready for a conference call from Democratic Party headquarters.

State Sen. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, said Fletcher didn't mention the possibility of a settlement at a fund-raiser for the governor in Bowling Green on Tuesday night. But he added that he wouldn't have expected Fletcher to say anything.

"Whatever happens in the next few days, he's just going to have to go out and make his case about what he's done for the state and why he should be re-elected," Guthrie said. "I couldn't predict how any type of settlement might affect his chances" of winning a second term.

Stumbo, a Democrat, launched a grand jury investigation in June 2005 after a whistle blower gave him voluminous information about hiring decisions by the Fletcher administration. The grand jury indicted Fletcher May 11 on three misdemeanor charges that he violated state hiring laws.

Last Sept. 14, Fletcher fired nine administration officials for "mistakes" in state merit system rules. The merit system protects rank-and-file state workers from political influence. Fletcher's dismissals came more than two weeks after he issued a broad pardon for everyone indicted in the case except himself.

The governor's general counsel, Jim Deckard, claimed a previous deal to end the investigation fell apart more than a year ago. Last summer, Deckard said he went to Stumbo's Prestonsburg home over the July 4, 2005 weekend and agreed on conditions of a settlement. Stumbo confirmed they met but denied any deal was struck.