FRANKFORT - This month's perjury trial of former state transportation official Sam Beverage could include key testimony by a central witness in the state hiring investigation, while also casting a shadow over the governor's race.
The trial -- the last criminal case stemming from the 16-month investigation into the personnel practices of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration -- is scheduled to begin Feb. 19.
Prosecutors in Kentucky and Virginia are trying to force Dan Druen, a former Transportation Cabinet commissioner who was caught up in the hiring probe, to return to Kentucky to testify in the case. Druen provided the attorney general's office with a detailed account of personnel procedures and questionable political hirings in 2005.
Also, Attorney General Greg Stumbo, a Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor with Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, will ask for a special prosecutor to try Beverage, said spokeswoman Vicki Glass.
"There is no conflict, but Attorney General Stumbo is running for lieutenant governor, and we want to prevent any appearance of a conflict," Glass said. She added that the attorney general's office can assign the case to a county attorney or a commonwealth's attorney.
Glass declined to comment on any potential witness list for the trial.
But the vetting of evidence related to improper personnel actions in open court is expected to dredge up some of the key issues at the heart of the investigation, and raises the prospect of the governor taking the witness stand in the middle of his re-election campaign. Fletcher faces two Republicans in the May 22 primary.
Beverage is a former state highway engineer who was charged with making false statements to a special grand jury a day after Fletcher issued pardons to his administration aides.
Fletcher said yesterday he "doesn't have any plans" to pardon Beverage. The governor referred questions about whether he would testify, if called, to his general counsel, Jim Deckard. Deckard didn't return a call for comment.
Beverage's attorney, R. Burl McCoy, also didn't return the Herald-Leader's call.
Help from Virginia
To compel Druen to return to Kentucky to take the stand, the attorney general's office has enlisted help from prosecutors in Virginia, where Druen now lives.
Druen must appear at a Feb. 7 hearing in Richmond City Circuit Court, where Judge Walter W. Stout III will decide "whether or not he is a necessary witness and whether his presence in Kentucky would cause undo hardship for Mr. Druen to come back," said Alex Taylor, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Richmond, Va.
Taylor said he received a request from Scott Crawford-Sutherland, the lead prosecutor in the hiring investigation, to assist the Kentucky attorney general's office in getting Druen to return to Kentucky for the trial. Kentucky and Virginia are part of a multistate "uniform non-resident witness" agreement in which states can help each other with commanding a witness to appear in court, Taylor said.
"I'm going to be as zealous as possible on behalf of the citizens of Kentucky," Taylor said. "If he doesn't go down there, this information doesn't come out, right?"
Neither Druen nor his attorney in Louisville, Rob Eggert, returned calls yesterday.
The special grand jury charged Druen with a total of 12 misdemeanors related to improper political hirings and 22 felony counts of tampering with a witness or evidence. All of those charges were covered by Fletcher's pardons.
Druen, in August 2005, provided prosecutors in Stumbo's office with a detailed statement, saying at several points that Fletcher was present at or aware of discussions about questionable personnel moves. In one instance, Druen, the former transportation administrative services commissioner, said Fletcher attended a meeting in which cabinet officials presented a sealed envelope containing the now-famous "hit list."
That list included the names of several merit employees, their political affiliation and campaign contributions. Merit workers, according to law, cannot be hired or fired solely for political reasons.
Fletcher has said he did not see such a list.
In addition, in response to separate charges by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Druen released a statement to the Herald-Leader in December that said he was following orders with any personnel actions he made.
"Everything I did was pursuant to a directive from my supervisors, top to bottom, including the governor, in advancement of the very initiative that carried his name," Druen said, referring to the Governor's Personnel Initiative.
Michael Baranowski, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, said headlines from a trial would come at a politically inconvenient time for Fletcher.
"When it comes to the hiring scandal or the story, no publicity is good publicity for Ernie Fletcher," he said. "The more coverage this gets, the better it would be for the other Republican candidates."
Fletcher's opponents in the GOP primary, former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Paducah construction company owner Billy Harper, both have been arguing to Republican voters that they would be better nominees than the governor. They say Fletcher's political baggage would hurt him in the fall race against the Democrats.
Fletcher has been touting his policy accomplishments, and he has avoided discussing his troubles, such as the state personnel investigation.
"It's like the scandal that won't go away for Ernie Fletcher," Baranowski said.