Politics & Government

Stumbo says agreement good for system

FRANKFORT - During the 30-plus years of Democrats' rule at the head of Kentucky's government, there were likely at least some abuses of the state's personnel laws, Attorney General Greg Stumbo said.

Those "sporadic" abuses continued into a full-scale patronage system under Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration, Stumbo claimed in an interview with The Associated Press last week. But key provisions of the armistice ending Fletcher's legal battle over alleged improper hirings should protect state employees well into the future, Stumbo said.

"I'm not so blind as to say that the Democratic administrations before this didn't abuse the system somewhat. I think they did, to be honest with you," Stumbo said. "But hopefully, in the future, and hopefully for the rest of this administration, those abuses will stop and the system will function as the system is designed by law to function."

It was a veteran state employee who, more than a year ago, brought prosecutors mounds of evidence claiming that Fletcher's administration had been guiding protected state jobs to political supporters. Kentucky's merit system was created in 1960 and designed to keep certain rank-and-file state jobs from political influence.

The investigation ended last week when a judge signed off on a negotiated agreement between Stumbo and Fletcher that dropped the governor's misdemeanor charges of alleged conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination.

As part of the agreement, Fletcher acknowledged that the evidence "strongly indicates wrongdoing by his administration" regarding the merit system.

It also required the resignations of Fletcher's four appointees to the Personnel Board, which oversees merit system employees, and that the administration would produce evidence to the attorney general's office if there are any further alleged acts of political discrimination.

That pending power shift should protect state employees for years to come, and they should be "much safer today than they were," because of other stipulations, Stumbo said.

"It's going to have a chilling effect upon anybody who wants to abuse the merit system during the rest of this administration," Stumbo said.

Fletcher, according to the order, will select the next panel members from candidates selected by Stumbo.

Charles Wells, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said the change should bring definite neutrality to the Personnel Board. Under the previous board, state employees may have been uncertain they would get fair hearings.

"It's a very good thing," Wells said. "We needed to retake the Personnel Board and put it in neutral grounds. The state employees have lost faith in the Personnel Board under Ernie Fletcher."

New members will serve out the remainder of the terms for the people they replace, said Mark Sipek, the board's executive director. Two of Fletcher's appointees had terms ending Jan 1. 2008, and one each on Jan. 1, 2009, and 2010, Sipek said.

"Within a six-month or so period, we're going to have potentially seven new members," Sipek said.

Charles Holbrook, a 42-year-old state Transportation Cabinet superintendent, is one of more than a dozen employees who still has a complaint pending before the board. Holbrook, of Whitesburg, claims to have been passed over for a job in 2004 in favor of a registered Republican who was not fully trained and had years less experience.

"I want to correct the wrong," Holbrook said. "I hope to get dealt with fairly either way."

Karen Stewart, a Louisville attorney who has practiced cases before the Personnel Board, said the previous panel had a reputation for tending to uphold state agencies' decisions.

"Assuming that the four that they appoint have no bias one way or another, then it should make it a bit more favorable for employees who come in with legitimate complaints to get some redress," Stewart said. "It's very difficult for an employee to make out a case. I hope the playing field's a little bit more level now."