Politics & Government

Stumbo questions ethics opinion

FRANKFORT - Attorney General Greg Stumbo's lawyer has asked the Executive Branch Ethics Commission whether it would still be a conflict of interest for Stumbo to "file as a candidate for governor in 2007" now that the state hiring investigation is over.

That move fueled further speculation about whether Stumbo, a Democrat, is gearing up to run.

The commission had ruled in June that it would be a conflict for Stumbo's office to handle the personnel probe into Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration and then for Stumbo to run for governor -- either against Fletcher or someone else.

But Mike Bowling, Stumbo's former law partner and a former state representative, sent a letter to the commission on Stumbo's behalf this week asking the commission to rethink its advisory opinion. Such an opinion doesn't carry the weight of law, but violating it could prompt the commission to levy sanctions or a fine.

Bowling said in the letter that the commission's position blocking Stumbo from running for governor in 2007 went too far and should be revised in light of Stumbo and Fletcher agreeing in a court-approved deal to end the investigation in August.

Prosecutors in Stumbo's office agreed to dismiss the three misdemeanor charges levied against Fletcher by a special grand jury in exchange for Fletcher declaring that the probe and prosecution of the governor "were necessary and proper exercises of (Stumbo's) constitutional duty."

"Given this acknowledgement, the interest of the commonwealth could not be said to conflict with any actual or potential desire of the attorney general to be a candidate for the office of governor," Bowling wrote in his letter, which was dated Dec. 1 and received by the commission Dec. 6.

Jill LeMaster, executive director of the commission, said that the issue isn't on the agenda for the commission's Dec. 15 meeting, but Bowling's arguments on Stumbo's behalf will be presented to the five commission members that day.

"Whether or not there is some decision issued at the meeting, I can't say," LeMaster said.

Stumbo said in an interview that he had no problem with the part of the commission's June 16 ruling that said Stumbo couldn't run for governor while his prosecutors were involved in the hiring investigation.

He said he objected to the part of the opinion that said he would have a possible conflict "regardless of whether the investigation and prosecution have been completed, or whether the current governor remains a candidate in that election."

Bowling wrote that such a broad ruling could have unintended consequences in the future by discouraging prosecutors from bringing a case against another governor in fear that it would derail their chances to seek that office.

Stumbo called the ruling "a bad precedent" and said he will challenge it in court if the ethics panel does not overturn it.

"Don't read anything more into it than this," said Stumbo, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for governor next year. "I will challenge this regardless of what office I pursue."

But Stumbo didn't rule out making a run for the Democratic nomination for governor. "It's still something we are looking at, but I have no plans at this time to run for governor," he said.

Fletcher's press secretary, Jodi Whitaker, however, said in a statement that the move "is consistent with Greg Stumbo's longtime plan to run for governor. It would not be unexpected that he would seek clearance from the Ethics Commission for this final step."

Fletcher, a Republican, already has filed to seek re-election next year.

Other Democrats said they didn't know whether Stumbo's request meant that he was preparing to run.

"I would assume he's exploring it," said Steve Beshear, a Lexington attorney and former Democratic lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Beshear said he is considering running and has been talking with other Democrats --including State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard -- about forming a ticket.

House Speaker Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat, who insists he's just focused on remaining the top official in the House, said he, too, isn't sure what Stumbo's move means in relation to the governor's race -- one that so far has been marked more by rumors, meeting and speculation than action.

"It does have more twists and turns than a mountain road," Richards said.