Politics & Government

House will take no action against Rep. Keith Hall on ethics, Stumbo says

Keith Hall, a former Kentucky state representative, went on trial Monday for allegedly paying a state mine inspector to ignore violations at Hall's surface mines in Pike County.
Keith Hall, a former Kentucky state representative, went on trial Monday for allegedly paying a state mine inspector to ignore violations at Hall's surface mines in Pike County. Photo provided

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, will face no consequences for his recent ethics sanctions when the 2012 General Assembly convenes on Tuesday.

In October, the Legislative Ethics Commission publicly reprimanded Hall and fined him $2,000 for appropriating state money for a Pike County sewer project from which one of his companies took more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts. In a plea deal, Hall denied guilt but agreed that enough evidence existed to make a case against him.

It was the strongest ethics penalty handed down to a Kentucky state lawmaker in more than a decade. The ethics commission notified House Speaker Greg Stumbo of its findings so he could take whatever action he considered appropriate, said executive director Anthony Wilhoit.

That would be nothing, Stumbo said in a prepared statement.

The ethics commission did not recommend any specific action by the House, so the matter is closed, said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

"I believe the commission's ruling stands as the final judgment in this matter," Stumbo said.

Hall and his attorney, Brent Caldwell, did not return calls seeking comment this week.

Others said Hall embarrassed himself and the legislature. Stumbo should administer some form of discipline, they said, whether it's a verbal rebuke in the House chamber or the loss of desirable assignments, such as Hall's seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which decides state spending.

Over the years, Hall has used that committee seat to send millions of public dollars to the privately managed Mountain Water District in Pike County, from which one of his companies, B.M.M. Inc., simultaneously received millions of dollars in contracts. For a time, Hall's son worked at the company that runs the water district.

"The General Assembly should acknowledge that one of its members has done something blatantly wrong," said Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, a government watchdog.

"There should be some constraints on his appropriations role for a period of time, at least," Beliles said. "He wasn't very sensitive to the conflicts of interest, so he needs a probation period or to be off the committee altogether for a while. And that should be announced on the House floor."

The Kentucky Constitution gives the state House and Senate the authority to punish poor behavior by their members, up to expulsion in the worst instances.

However, such censures are rare. The last such case may have come in 1996, when the House ordered state Rep. Richard Turner, R-Tompkinsville, to publicly apologize and lose his seat on the appropriations committee for failing to report $3,000 he took from a lobbyist.

"It's always difficult for any legislative body to admonish one of its own members because that creates tension, and we have to be able to work with each other," said state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville.

"But it's important for us to publicly acknowledge that we have a member who crossed an ethical line. It reflects poorly on House leadership if we do nothing in a case that involves a House Democrat, one of our own, who's from a district next to the House speaker's," Wayne said.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party, said Stumbo aggressively chased misdemeanor offenses by Republicans when he was the Democratic attorney general investigating GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Now that a member of his own political party has been caught in a case involving $171,000 in public funds, Stumbo prefers to drop it, Robertson said.

"It's no secret that people have a low opinion of our government, and things like this are exactly why," Robertson said. "It should not matter which party a politician belongs to. If they're directing taxpayer funds to themselves or their businesses, it should not be tolerated."

In January, state Auditor Crit Luallen issued a report critical of Mountain Water District and its no-bid contracts for Hall. Luallen forwarded her report to the ethics commission and to Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who has not taken action on the matter as of this week, said spokeswoman Shelley Catharine Johnson.

The ethics commission's sanctions are unlikely to hurt Hall's re-election chances in 2012, said N. Clayton Little, chairman of the Pike County Democratic Party.

Hall first was elected to the House in 2000. He resigned the previous year from the Pike County school board while the state Education Department investigated him for allegedly trying to influence district hiring.

"I don't think it's enough to keep him from winning," said Little, a former state lawmaker who held Hall's House seat from 1974 to 1994. "There's not been much publicity about it out here. He's still pretty much been a good boy."

Voters can be quick to forgive if they like the way a legislator votes, said Thomas Appleton, who teaches state history at Eastern Kentucky University. Voters can be especially loyal in small towns, Appleton said.

"In a small community, everyone may know the elected official personally. If they're fond of him, that counts for a lot," he said. "In a big city, it's different. You're probably only going to know your elected officials based on their reputations, what they've done in office, so that's how you're likely to judge them."