Politics & Government

Ethics watchdog Richard Beliles has few friends in Kentucky Capitol

Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Richard Beliles staged a sit-in at the governor's office during our time with him, to protest mountaintop removal mining. He does the Thursday sit-in shift every week as part of a larger group of volunteer protesters associated with an organization called Stop Mounty Top Removal.  Photo by David Perry | Staff
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Richard Beliles staged a sit-in at the governor's office during our time with him, to protest mountaintop removal mining. He does the Thursday sit-in shift every week as part of a larger group of volunteer protesters associated with an organization called Stop Mounty Top Removal. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

FRANKFORT — Richard Beliles sat in Gov. Steve Beshear's office foyer on a recent morning, staging his weekly protest of mountaintop-removal coal mining, when Senate President David Williams walked by and suggested that he kill himself.

"He said, 'Are you occupying the office?' I said yes. He said, 'Well, why don't you set yourself on fire? Why don't you immolate yourself?' And then he left," said Beliles, who is recovering from cancer treatment. "It was a strange thing for David to say. It sort of shook me up."

Through a spokeswoman, Williams later said he clearly was joking by suggesting the protest would be more effective with Beliles ablaze.

Beliles, who turns 78 on Tuesday, is a soft-spoken, genial man — and one of the more deeply resented figures at the Capitol.

He earned this animosity as chairman of the Kentucky chapter of Common Cause, a national advocacy group that describes its mission as "curbing the excessive influence of money on government and promoting fair elections." It's only one of his many causes (hence, his weekly coal-mining protests), but it's the one that most defines him.

For 22 years, without pay, Beliles has driven to Frankfort from his suburban Louisville home to lobby for stronger government ethics laws. He files ethics complaints, as he did to Williams in 2007 after the Republican senator sponsored a lunch where lobbyists were asked to help raise $50,000 in campaign funds in apparent violation of the law. (Williams said it was a mistake by his aides, and the complaint was dismissed). He is quoted as the scolding voice of integrity in news stories when politicians get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

None of this has won him many friends in the crowd that runs state government.

"I couldn't — I just honestly don't know what I want to say about Richard," said Jody Richards, the former Democratic House speaker who represents Bowling Green in the lower chamber.

In 1997, Beliles filed a complaint asking the Legislative Ethics Commission to look into a free five-day trip that Richards took to a Costa Rican resort. The official purpose of the trip, which included a jungle safari, was to study international trade agreements.

Richards' travel was paid for by a non-profit group funded by cigarette maker Phillip Morris, which lobbied the legislature on various matters. Lawmakers cannot accept gifts from lobbyists. Richards denied knowing of Phillip Morris' role in his trip, and he said no one in Costa Rica lobbied him on anything.

"I'm hoping that I'm wrong, that he hasn't done a darn thing wrong," Beliles said as he filed his complaint. "But I really think he goofed up. He should have known better."

The ethics panel sided with Richards and dismissed the complaint. Fifteen years later, Richards still bristles at the mention of Beliles' name. Legislators take their reputations seriously, Richards said.

"From our point of view, to be accused of something is almost like being convicted, at least in the eyes of the public," Richards said.

Beliles said he's fond of Richards and regrets offending him. But Kentuckians shouldn't have to apologize for asking about the relationships between their elected leaders and the moneyed interests seeking favors, he said.

"It's the money that warps the political system," Beliles said, sitting in his usual protest chair outside Beshear's door. "Lobbyists give a half-million dollars to the gubernatorial races and, if they want to see Steve Beshear, they can walk in and see him. The rest of us wait out here and hope we might catch a glimpse."

Beliles said it's his duty to shine a light on whatever looks questionable, regardless of his feelings for the people involved or his own politics, which are decidedly liberal.

In 1995, for instance, he voted for Paul Patton, the Democratic nominee for governor. A month after Patton won, Beliles publicly called for state investigations of Patton aide Danny Ross, who had coordinated with labor unions to promote Patton in Louisville in possible violation of campaign fund-raising restrictions.

A grand jury in 1998 indicted Ross, Patton's chief of staff and two Louisville Teamsters in connection with the questions Beliles raised. Patton pardoned everyone before a trial could be held. Ross since has worked as a labor adviser for two more Democrats, Attorney General Greg Stumbo and Beshear.

"I liked Patton," Beliles said, "but there were serious problems in how he won that race that needed to be examined."

Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, is a Beliles admirer. The men are working on a proposal for public financing of judicial campaigns, to stop corporations from essentially buying themselves a sympathetic judge, a situation that has led to controversy in West Virginia.

Beliles is an old-fashioned gentleman, always polite no matter how others treat him, and he refuses to become cynical, Wayne said.

"Some of the citizen-activists you see pass through here are more hard-charging, or even angry, you could say," Wayne said, speaking outside the House chamber. "They tend to burn out before long because they're not seeing results fast enough. Richard is patient enough to be in this for the long haul."

'The house liberal'

Born and educated in Louisville, a lawyer by training, Beliles' first experience with government was working in it. He served in the 1970s as an aide to Louisville Mayor Frank Burke, a Democrat. He oversaw federal poverty assistance programs and was "sort of the house liberal at City Hall," he said.

"Richard was easy to talk to, and he was a team player. At the same time, he was always concerned that we did things the right way, the ethically right way," said William Summers, the chief administrative officer in the Louisville Metro Government, who worked with Beliles in the Burke administration.

Later, Beliles entered the private sector to practice law and raise a family. Now divorced, he has three grown children and five grandchildren.

But he couldn't shake his interest in politics. In the 1980s, he joined Common Cause, a reform-minded "good-government" group that had emerged in Washington around the time the Watergate scandal toppled President Richard Nixon. Before long, Beliles was the group's lobbyist and state chairman in Frankfort. It's an unpaid post, though Common Cause claims hundreds of members in Kentucky.

Beliles periodically checks in with Common Cause headquarters, where spokeswoman Mary Boyle said he's respected as one of the group's longest-serving volunteers and given considerable latitude in picking his battles.

Closer to home, Beliles meets throughout the year in Louisville with a state board composed of eight or nine people. One board member, Sister Mary Schmuck, a Catholic nun, praised him as "unduly effective given the resources we have" and added that "this work is a mission to Richard. He is a person of faith, although he does not wear it on his sleeve."

Run for Congress

In 1988, Beliles ran for Congress on a platform that included cutting military spending and banning campaign donations from political action committees. He won the politically undesirable Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Bunning in Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District.

Bunning, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, was a popular incumbent who raised $25 for every dollar that Beliles had. Far ahead in the polls, Bunning refused to debate his little-known opponent. (To this day, the two men never have met, Beliles said.) Bunning told reporters that he would not appear with someone who wasn't "a credible candidate."

As Election Day approached, Beliles said, he was counting on "riding the coattails of Michael Dukakis," that year's Democratic nominee for president. Instead, he and Dukakis both got clobbered. Bunning went on to spend 22 more years in Congress.

"I knew it was an uphill battle," Beliles said recently. "But I enjoyed it. I got to go around the district and meet a lot of different people. I published 20 position papers explaining where I stood on the issues. The Courier-Journal even went crazy and endorsed me."

'Awesome sleaze'

Beliles was back in Frankfort by the early 1990s to protest the "awesome sleaze" that he said resulted from big campaign donors winning favorable legislation and lucrative state contracts and tax breaks.

Beliles didn't find much of an audience for his ideas until FBI agents raided the Capitol in the closing hours of the 1992 legislative session. An undercover investigation called Operation BOPTROT exposed 15 current or former lawmakers who sold their votes. Don Blandford, the House speaker, was among those sent to prison.

Kentucky responded to the scandal by passing reforms, many based on Beliles' proposals. A new Legislative Ethics Commission would limit and monitor lawmakers' conduct to prevent conflicts of interest. Partial public financing of gubernatorial campaigns would reduce the need for and influence of campaign donors, or so the theory went.

But as public outrage over BOPTROT faded, Beliles said, Kentucky's leaders saw their chance to return to the status quo.

Partial public financing in governor's races was denounced as "welfare for politicians" and repealed. The legislature gutted its own ethics laws in ways that weakened the ethics commission's independence, he said. Most of the ethics commissioners resigned in protest, as did the panel's executive director. Since then, it's been unusual for the ethics commission to discipline a lawmaker for misconduct.

"Do we feel duped!" Beliles wrote in a 1996 newspaper opinion piece as the legislature rewrote its three-year-old ethics laws.

Beliles said he refuses to be discouraged by reversals.

"Most of what I push for doesn't get passed, or if it does, it doesn't stay passed," he said. "But I think things do get better. Most people want an honest, responsive government."