Politics & Government

Fletcher defense donors won't be known until '08

FRANKFORT - In addition to raising money for his re-election bid, Gov. Ernie Fletcher is on a fund-raising drive to help pay his legal bills that remain from the 16-month state hiring investigation.

But any money he raises for the "Governor's Legal Defense Fund" this year won't have to be disclosed to the public until the spring of 2008 -- long after he is either re-elected or defeated.

Lt. Gov. Steve Pence said that was too long to wait in an election year.

"I think the governor would probably be best served by making a full disclosure, especially during the campaign year," said Pence, who got elected with Fletcher but whose relationship with the governor has grown chilly over the past year.

Bill Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass and an ardent Fletcher supporter, said he intended to contribute to Fletcher's legal defense fund but has not yet decided how much.

He added that he hoped "the hundreds and thousands of Kentuckians, who believe like I do, that when you go into public offices we don't expect you to give up everything," decide to contribute as well.

Fletcher and dozens of other administration officials incurred legal costs during the investigation into state hiring practices. A special grand jury indicted 15 former or current officials, including the governor.

Stone said Attorney General Greg Stumbo -- a Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor with Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford -- forced Fletcher and his aides who appeared before the grand jury to have to pay high legal bills.

"As a general philosophical matter, whether it's those kids who were subpoenaed by Stumbo ... or whether it's the governor who exposed his entire net worth to a political witch hunt, I see nothing wrong with it," Stone said, of the fund.

Fletcher earns a salary of $116,520. In addition, Fletcher said last year he had made a real estate investment in Florida of between $160,000 and $170,000, using the proceeds from the sale of his home and a rental property.

R. Kent Westberry, one of Fletcher's personal attorneys, declined to discuss Fletcher's legal bills.

Stone also was among several Republicans who tried to set up a legal defense fund in 2005 for some of Fletcher's aides.

That account received so few donations after Fletcher pardoned everyone in his administration on Aug. 29, 2005, that the fund was disbanded and the contributions were returned, Stone said yesterday.

Fletcher did not pardon himself but agreed to a deal with Stumbo last August that ended the investigation.

The governor's general counsel, Jim Deckard, issued a statement last night saying Fletcher would adhere to the law with the fund.

"Disclosure of any gifts to the governor, including those made to defer legal expenses, will be disclosed pursuant to each and every legal requirement," Deckard said.

Showing donors

Such a fund would be loosely watched by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which has released several advisory opinions on the issue over the past two years.

In August, the commission gave Fletcher permission to accept donations for a defense trust as long he didn't take checks from companies or individuals who have business with the state -- specifically not those "with which the governor has had or will have direct involvement or participation in such issues."

An earlier opinion from Sept. 2, 2005, said any executive branch official who receives money from such a defense trust must "disclose the source of the gift, including the source's name and address" on an annual financial disclosure report.

Those reports -- which are due to the ethics commission by Feb. 15 each year -- require officials to list gifts they received in the previous calendar year that are worth more than $200. Those reports are then released to the public by the end of April.

That would mean donations to the legal fund made in 2007 wouldn't show up on Fletcher's report until next spring.

Stone said he didn't believe waiting until next year was too long.

"I think he should disclose it in a timely manner, which is a year after it's done, just like any other gift," he said.

Seeking funds

Scott Bucher, owner of S&B Cattle in Lexington, said he has been approached to contribute to Fletcher's legal fund but couldn't remember whether he has written a check yet. He said he also couldn't recall who asked him to give -- whether it was Fletcher or Mira Ball, one of the governor's chief supporters who has been working with the defense fund.

"I know the Balls fairly well. And I know the governor on a personal basis," Bucher said.

He said it was a cause he could support.

"I think he was mistreated and abused, and I think he is a good governor," said Bucher, a co-owner of Blue Grass Stockyards. "I will help him and do anything as long as it's legal."

Ball did not return a call to her office. A woman answering the phone at her home said she was "on holiday."

The August ethics commission opinion gave Fletcher the go-ahead to allow the chairperson or trustee of a defense fund to be "an individual who serves on a board or commission affiliated with state government" as long as that person doesn't have another conflict, such as serving as a government lobbyist.

Fletcher has appointed Ball to the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees as well as the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission.