Politics & Government

Pence sees a cover-up in Fletcher's pardons

Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, who in four years has gone from cheerleader for Gov. Ernie Fletcher to stern critic, said two of the governor's key acts in response to the state hiring investigation were cover-ups.

Pence told the Herald-Leader in an exclusive interview that he thought Fletcher decided to issue pardons on Aug. 29, 2005, as a way to keep the probe from incriminating anyone in the governor's office.

"I'm quite confident that there was a fear about how high it would go up in this administration," Pence said.

He also said that the deal Fletcher later struck with Attorney General Greg Stumbo to end the hiring investigation was made "to keep anything else from coming out."

Pence -- in detailing for the first time his frustrations with Fletcher's handling of the hiring investigation -- traced his estrangement with Fletcher to late August 2005, a crucial point at which the administration was trying to hammer out its strategy to respond to the growing political crisis.

At that time, Pence said he and others in the administration had argued against taking the drastic step of issuing pardons, and thought Fletcher had agreed.

But suddenly, Pence said, he received a call Aug. 29 that Fletcher would have a rally in the Capitol Rotunda that night to announce that he was granting broad amnesty to his entire administration.

He said he thinks Fletcher was following advice from his chief of staff, Stan Cave.

"I do not know what caused him to do that on that day," Pence said. "I will tell you this: I know that he was meeting with Stan. I think Stan Cave had a lot to do with the decision."

Pence said he didn't know whether any directives to hire rank-and-file state workers based on their political affiliation came out of the governor's office. "But I know who was running the governor's office at the time, and it was Stan," Pence said.

In a statement yesterday, Cave countered Pence's assertions.

"The description of events is pure fantasy from a scorned self-described former wingman," Cave said. "It is indeed unfortunate that his situation has brought him to the point of becoming the mouthpiece for the dirty work" of Anne Northup and Stumbo.

Fletcher's handling of the hiring investigation, as well as the political fallout, has been a major theme in this spring's Republican primary. The governor faces challenges from Northup, a former congresswoman from Louisville, and Paducah businessman Billy Harper.

Pence said he had initially planned to remain silent during this race. But he publicly endorsed Northup on Monday, saying he had grown increasingly frustrated with Fletcher's actions.

Pence, a former U.S. attorney who was part of the legal team that prosecuted state lawmakers in the 1990s on corruption charges, said he disagreed with Fletcher for issuing pardons because they effectively allowed "the executive branch to shut down the judicial branch."

A special grand jury investigated whether the administration violated state merit-employee laws by hiring rank-and-file workers for solely political reasons. After the pardons, the state Supreme Court ruled that the jury could no longer issue indictments of anyone covered by the governor's act.

Pence, who also served as Fletcher's Justice Cabinet secretary until last June, said he urged Fletcher not to resort to pardons until one of the 14 aides indicted was acquitted in a trial. At that point Fletcher could argue that the allegations couldn't be supported, Pence added.

"I had conversations with him. I had conversations with Stan Cave about that," Pence said. "None of them turned out very pleasantly."

He declined to discuss specifics of the meetings.

Questioning the deal

In the interview during Pence's statewide endorsement tour for Northup on Monday, Pence also told the Herald-Leader that Fletcher's agreement with Stumbo undermined the administration's claims of innocence.

In that agreement, the court dropped three misdemeanor charges that the jury levied against Fletcher. Stumbo agreed to say that any hiring missteps by the administration were made "without malice."

Fletcher, meanwhile, took responsibility for any improper personnel moves made by his aides, and agreed to say publicly that the probe was justified.

The settlement also nullified the findings of Fletcher's former Personnel Cabinet secretary, Erwin Roberts, whose own internal review from May 27, 2005, found that his cabinet didn't make any improper hirings.

"It looked so bad when that settlement agreement not only said that there was cause for the investigation ... but Greg Stumbo made him say" that he would throw out the administration's personnel report, Pence said. "I could never understand -- if nothing happened -- why we would take the report we did and make that report false."

Roberts, now a lawyer in Louisville, said yesterday that he, too, "had a big problem" with the deal between Fletcher and Stumbo.

"The agreement overall was, well, politics as usual," said Roberts, who also has worked in the U.S. attorney's office. "That's an agreement that could have been made in the beginning. To go through everything that was gone through and then end it like that -- it just didn't smell right."

Abdicating power

Another parameter of the deal kicked Fletcher's appointees off the state Personnel Board -- which also investigates claims of politically motivated firings and hirings -- and allowed Stumbo to suggest the names of their replacements.

"If this is truly nothing but a political witch hunt, why would you abdicate your authority as governor?" Pence asked. "And why would you give more power to Greg Stumbo?

"The only reasons for doing that is expediency, number one, and two, to keep anything else from coming out," Pence said.

Fletcher said last August, after reaching the deal with Stumbo, that such an agreement was necessary so the state could get past the investigation.

"The buck still stops here," the governor said at a press conference on the day the deal was announced, adding that he wanted to turn his concentration back to moving "forward on the issues that face Kentucky."

A crumbling relationship

It wasn't always this way between the state's top two elected executives.

Fletcher plucked Pence out of relative political obscurity in April 2003 to be his running mate after Fletcher's first choice, Hunter Bates, was declared ineligible by an Oldham Circuit judge.

"Some of us have been disgusted to see many of the things that have gone on there," Pence said of Frankfort on April 7, 2003 -- the day he officially joined Fletcher's ticket. "I assure you I would not have given up my job as U.S. attorney unless I was confident that he can be the instrument of that change."

Pence said Monday that he and Fletcher repeatedly talked about how they would handle political pressures.

"I rode in a car with him on more than one occasion, and we were of like mind on this -- that we were not going to promise anything except good government," Pence said.

Pence, among others, also defended Fletcher when the hiring investigation began in May 2005.

"We stood up and we said, 'We are going to get the unvarnished truth. We're not afraid of this,'" Pence said. "And then he did just the opposite."

The act that precipitated the crumbling of the two men's relationship was the issuance of the pardons that August night in the Capitol Rotunda, The administration encouraged many of the high-ranking state officials to attend that announcement.

Pence was the only cabinet member who didn't show up.

Despite dropping off of Fletcher's re-election ticket and now backing Northup, Pence said he won't resign as lieutenant governor because "the people elected me to a four-year term."

Pence's staff resigned last week before his endorsement of Northup. His chief of staff, Stephen Huffman, left to seek a legislative affairs position in the private sector, while Pence's executive assistant, Ryan Watts, will move to a Transportation Cabinet post next week. Pence has said he wanted them to make career moves before being caught up in a political maelstrom.

But Pence said he isn't bracing for any retribution from Fletcher.

"There's no need for this to be personal between the governor and me and the governor and anyone who supports Anne Northup," he said. "This is simply a matter of preference."