Politics & Government

Kentucky tourism commissioner suspended for unauthorized trip to England

Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper. Photo Provided
Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper. Photo Provided

FRANKFORT — Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper was suspended without pay for five days in July for failing to get authorized approval for a trip to London, England.

Cooper, who held a key position in Gov. Steve Beshear's 2007 inauguration and campaign, also was taken to task over travel expenses in a June 3, 2009, letter from Tourism, Arts and Heritage Secretary Marcheta Sparrow.

Questions about Cooper's travel expense records prompted Sparrow in 2009 to initiate a new travel policy that says cabinet employees may use state credit cards to buy airline tickets only. Other expenses, such as hotel reservations, must be made using a personal credit card.

That rule has since been applied to the entire executive branch, said Finance and Administration Cabinet spokeswoman Cindy Lanham.

Sparrow said in her 2009 letter to Cooper that he had used his department-issued credit card for personal charges while traveling on business and had been tardy in submitting out-of-state travel vouchers.

She outlined $343.57 in personal charges at Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee, Fla., in April 2009, including $180 to upgrade lodging, $79 for transportation and $24.26 for a meal.

Sparrow also said in her letter that she was concerned about Cooper submitting affidavits in place of lost receipts. She noted $950 in undocumented expenses for trips in 2008 to Las Vegas, London and Bonita Springs, Fla.

Sparrow and Cooper declined to comment about Cooper's travel expense problems.

Cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson said the secretary typically does not make comments about employees and would allow her letters, obtained by the Herald-Leader through a request under the Open Records Act, to speak for themselves.

Lawson said Cooper did not want to comment on any disciplinary matters.

Cooper, a 26-year veteran of state government, was appointed commissioner of the state Department of Tourism in December 2007 after his work on Beshear's first inauguration.

He also coordinated the Kentucky Democratic Tour to Victory rallies and bus tour in 2007.

Cooper, of Lexington, will not be executive director of Beshear's second inauguration next month because his current responsibilities in the tourism department prevent him from taking on another full-time job, said Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian.

That job will be filled by former state tourism commissioner Bob Stewart, Sebastian said, adding that Cooper had no role in Beshear's campaign this year.

Cooper's suspension stemmed from an unauthorized trip he took to London in June.

Sparrow, in her letter to Cooper about the suspension, said state regulations require authorization for an employee to travel outside the United States on state business.

Cabinet spokesman Lawson said Cooper had been authorized to travel to Paris and Lyon, France, from June 12 to 22 for the Travel South International Tour Operators and Media Sales Mission. But Cooper left Kentucky on June 9 to spend a few days in England, Lawson said.

"He did some state work in England, meeting with media and travel operators on what he said was a last-second opportunity," Lawson said. "He spent time in England before going to France June 12, and he should not have done that."

The state did not pay for any of Cooper's expenses while he was in England, Lawson said. He noted that Travel South, a regional marketing organization for the Southern United States, paid for Cooper's airfare and lodging to England and France. State records show the state paid $455.69 for Cooper's meals and transportation in France.

Sparrow told Cooper that he could appeal the suspension to the Personnel Board, but he did not, Lawson said.

The suspension letter came two years after Sparrow sent a four-page letter to Cooper about "troubling issues relating to your travel expenses."

In that letter, Sparrow presented a time line of Cooper's expense problems that included charges for personal expenses while at the Gaylord Palms in Florida. She gave him one day to submit reimbursement for the expenses. Lawson said he did.

Asked whether Cooper had ever used his state credit card for any other personal expenses, Lawson said Cooper spent $164.30 at a men's store at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., in June 2008.

"Commissioner Cooper was not reimbursed for these items," Lawson said.

Cooper's travel records do not indicate what he bought at The Greenbrier store.