Politics & Government

Pence urges review of pardon power

FRANKFORT - Kentucky officials should consider limiting the governor's broad ability to grant pardons so future governors cannot use that power to skirt legal scrutiny, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence told the Herald-Leader yesterday.

Pence said he wants to see "the governor, the attorney general and the legislative leaders meet and sit down to review the scope of the pardon power," perhaps as soon as the upcoming General Assembly session in January.

"Clearly, the pardons that are pre-emptive -- where you don't know the name of the person or the charges against that person -- are very problematic," he said.

Pence said that above all, Kentuckians should know who is being accused of a crime, for what reasons, and how much evidence is available so they can decide for themselves whether a governor is justified in erasing the charges.

"If the government engages in something that hides the ball, the public will lose respect for the law," Pence said.

Last year, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher pardoned anyone in his administration who had been charged -- or who would be charged -- with any improper personnel actions, an act that protected at least four officials from later indictments.

Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo's office and a special grand jury had been investigating the hiring practices of administration officials to see whether rank-and-file merit employees were being hired illegally based on politics instead of qualifications.

The grand jury had indicted nine administration officials on misdemeanor charges and one on felony charges when Fletcher issued the blanket pardons on Aug. 29, 2005. That move essentially blocked the jury from issuing more indictments for illegal hirings after that date.

The state Supreme Court later upheld Fletcher's ability to grant such pardons. The court also said this spring that four indictments handed down after Aug. 29, 2005, were nullified.

Pence demonstrated his discomfort with Fletcher's decision by skipping the governor's announcement of the pardons in the Capitol. That began a public split between Fletcher and Pence, culminating in Pence's dropping off the governor's re-election ticket in May.

Pence has since considered running against Fletcher in the Republican primary for governor or as a candidate for attorney general. He said yesterday he's receiving encouragement to run for both offices but is "under no pressure" to decide immediately.

Pence said he's not aiming to criticize Fletcher by urging a review of the pardoning power.

"I'm not talking about this governor. That's water under the bridge. This is about future governors," said Pence, a former U.S. attorney who was a federal prosecutor on the major public corruption case, Operation BOPTROT, in the 1990s. That case uncovered bribery among some of the state's top lawmakers.

"Those cases involved real corruption, real extortion. I'm not sure we want a governor having the ability to say: 'That is all political because another party is (leading the probe) and I'm stopping it right now'" with pardons, Pence said.

Fletcher's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, also was criticized for his use of the pardons in 2003 when he granted immunity to three former aides, who had been indicted but not yet convicted on charges of violating campaign finance laws in the 1995 governor's race.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who was the state attorney general who led the case against Patton's aides, recently said that the pardons by Patton and Fletcher "cheapened" the office of the governor. Chandler, who lost to Fletcher in the 2003 race, said both governors should have resigned after issuing those pardons.

Pence said that pardoning someone after an indictment but before a trial is a "gray area" that needs to be evaluated by state leaders.

"I believe at some point -- and I believe the sooner the better -- everyone needs to sit down and have their voices heard," Pence said, noting that former governors and past attorney generals should be tapped as well.

Jim Deckard, Fletcher's general counsel, had no immediate comment yesterday.

Stumbo, the Democratic attorney general who led the case against Fletcher, said he, too, would like to address the issue. Any retooling of that power, however, would mean amending the state's constitution -- a process that requires lawmakers' and voters' approval.

Stumbo said he'd like to see gubernatorial pardons be ratified by the state Senate and House -- a suggestion he made in a bill in 2003 while he was in the legislature. "If the reasoning behind the governor's pardon is just, it's reasonable that the legislature will accept that," he said.

However, Pence said that would likely "politicize the problem even more."

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the governor's pardoning power "should be looked at," perhaps starting with legislative hearings during this winter's 30-day General Assembly session.

"I had some questions about that when it happened," Yonts said of Fletcher's broad pardons. "I think that should be clarified in some way."

But State Sen. Dan Kelly, the Republican Floor Leader from Springfield, called the pardon issue a "pretty complicated issue to address in a short period of time."

"That is not an issue that is a top concern that we're looking at," Kelly said.