Politics & Government

Grand jury blasts Fletcher

FRANKFORT - Gov. Ernie Fletcher approved "a widespread and coordinated plan to violate merit hiring laws" that protect rank-and-file workers, alleges a special grand jury report released yesterday.

Fletcher, a Republican who is seeking re-election, dismissed the report as the "same old stuff." He has maintained that the 17-month investigation of his administration's hiring practices is politically motivated and has been fanned by the gubernatorial ambitions of Attorney General Greg Stumbo, a Democrat.

Chief Franklin Circuit Judge Reed Rhorer released the 10-page report after a 15-minute closed-door hearing with attorneys for Fletcher and Stumbo. The special Franklin County grand jury, which began its work in June 2005, issued the report last month, but it remained sealed until yesterday.

The report said the lengthy investigation "was not about a few people here and there who made some mistakes, as Gov. Ernie Fletcher has claimed."

It said Fletcher's hiring plan, the Governor's Personnel Initiative, was "formulated at the highest level of state government," was approved by Fletcher and was an attack on the state merit law that forbids job discrimination because of politics.

"Entire cabinets and departments were tasked with carrying out various parts of this illegal plan. Senior administration officials were charged with the duty to give periodic reports regarding its status. Those who got in the way of the plan were fired or moved," the report said.

The grand jury urged the state Personnel Board to compensate or reinstate "many" state employees who were victimized by the alleged patronage scheme.

Fletcher, who is in Japan on an economic development trip, issued a statement through his press secretary, Jodi Whitaker. Fletcher also was in Japan in May 2005 when Stumbo's office began the investigation after a Transportation Cabinet employee presented Stumbo voluminous records about state hiring.

In his statement, Fletcher said the grand jury report does not mesh with an August settlement between Fletcher and Stumbo that dismissed three criminal misdemeanor charges against the governor.

Fletcher said Stumbo and his prosecutors "acknowledged in their dismissal order that our actions were from the beginning, without malice. This report contradicts that acknowledgement."

The governor said the grand jury report "reads more like a savvy litany of political sound bites rather than a legal document of purported evidence."

Stumbo has said he will decide by early December whether to run for governor.

Despite those objections, Fletcher said he recommended the report be released because concluding the investigation "is best for the Commonwealth."

Assistant Attorney General Scott Crawford-Sutherland, who worked with the grand jury, praised its members for devoting more than a year of their lives to public service. "They are ordinary citizens, and this report reflects their unbiased findings after listening to hours of testimony from more than 150 witnesses," he said.

"This is not the attorney general's report. This is not the court's report and it is not the governor's report. It's the people's report. As we've said all along, the public has a right to know what their government has been up to, and now they will."

In its report, the grand jury said it hopes that the investigation prevented the "systematic abuse of the merit system from advancing across state government."

The report noted that candidates for merit jobs and promotions, merit employees and their families "were damaged when these merit laws were broken," and "we expect that current and future administrations will respect the merit system. Merit jobs should not be given as a reward for political support."

Attorneys for Fletcher and Stumbo got to see the sealed report at 9 a.m. yesterday and had six hours to review it in private until a 3 p.m. hearing before Judge Rhorer. During that time, Stumbo's office asked Rhorer to release the report.

When the jury issued its report last month, Rhorer said he would follow a Court of Appeals order to let Fletcher's lawyers see it in private and then allow them to make any objections before releasing it to the public.

Following instructions from a higher court, the grand jury report could not mention people who weren't indicted or whose indictments were dismissed or sealed.

The jury last year indicted 15 people, including Fletcher, and this year returned 14 indictments that remain sealed. In August 2005, Fletcher pardoned people indicted by the grand jury, excluding himself.

So the grand jury report mentioned only Fletcher and former state highway engineer Sam Beverage, who was charged with one count of first-degree perjury. Beverage has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is pending.

The grand jury's report accused Fletcher of showing "a blatant disrespect for the grand jury process" during the investigation by labeling its work political and by fighting to withhold records.

It said Fletcher's pardons "made it difficult to get to the bottom of the facts in this case."

The grand jury's term ended yesterday.