Politics & Government

Ky. tourism official lets contractor pay expenses during 2011 trip

Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper
Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper

FRANKFORT — Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper allowed a state contractor to pay $735 for his meals, party tickets and other expenses in June during an unauthorized trip to London, England, in violation of state ethics laws, public records show.

Cooper's superiors at the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet instructed him to repay the money to the contractor, Gosh P.R., a British marketing firm that gets $179,900 a year to promote Kentucky tourism in the United Kingdom. Cooper helped award Gosh's contract in 2008 and signs off on its monthly billing.

However, Cooper was not disciplined for taking the gratuities and he told the cabinet it was an isolated incident, cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson said.

A 2007 campaign organizer for Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Democratic Party, Cooper remains in his $111,353-a-year appointed post, from which he travels widely on state business.

The state's executive branch ethics law prohibits government officials from taking more than $25 a year in gifts from contractors. Tim Pollard, head of the cabinet's finance office, quoted the ethics law in his letter to Cooper and Gosh P.R. last year, after the company submitted bills for Cooper's expenses so it could be reimbursed. Pollard's staff quickly flagged the money spent on Cooper.

"Mr. Cooper is not permitted to directly receive gifts or gratuities, such as meals and beverages, from a business doing business with the cabinet," Pollard wrote. He sent a copy of his letter to the cabinet's legal affairs office.

Cooper did not have authorization from the cabinet when he traveled to London in June, an infraction that led to a five-day suspension without pay the following month, as the Herald-Leader reported in November. Cooper, who declined to comment for this story, told his superiors he worked on state business while in London for several days. He then went to France, where he did have authorization to travel.

Cabinet Secretary Marcheta Sparrow also has criticized Cooper in past letters for improper personal use of his state-issued credit card and for undocumented expenses during trips to Las Vegas, London and Bonita Springs, Fla.

Sparrow declined to comment for this story.

'Roadkill bingo'

Cooper, of Lexington, organized the Kentucky Democratic Party's 2007 Tour to Victory rallies that promoted Beshear and the rest of the year's Democratic slate. He also organized the Democrats' Election Day celebration in Frankfort and Beshear's 2007 inauguration. Beshear awarded him the non-merit state job of tourism commissioner shortly after the inauguration.

Until Friday, Cooper was planning Kentucky-related publicity events for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which was expected to cost the state tens of thousands of dollars. First lady Jane Beshear planned to attend the Olympics at her own expense, a spokeswoman said.

However, after the Herald-Leader inquired about the cost of state officials attending the Olympics, the outing was canceled.

"In light of the 8.4 percent budget reduction proposed for this cabinet, the trip is no longer affordable or prudent," Lawson said Monday evening.

In 2008, Cooper sat on the three-person committee that gave a marketing contract to Gosh P.R. The company since has been paid a total of $647,769 to publicize Kentucky tourism to the British through state-subsidized media junkets and a Web site operated by Gosh P.R.

The Web site — Kentuckytourism.co.uk — suggests different attractions in Kentucky, including bluegrass music, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Derby.

And then there's "Roadkill Bingo," or competing to see who can find more dead critters alongside the highways.

"Drives can drag a bit, even with the jingle jangle of the banjo on the bluegrass-playing radio stations, so it's good to spice them up with fun car games," Gosh P.R. advises would-be visitors on the Web site.

"One popular game for long-distance trips is 'road-kill bingo,' " Gosh P.R. writes. "OK, it seems a bit sick, spotting dead animals, but you will never see so much road kill in your life, and so varied. Sadly, roadkill is a fact of life in Kentucky. The locals are used to it, and as they say, when in Rome ... . So if you can get over the sadness, and the blood, give it a whirl."

In 2010, Cooper told Gosh he would try to get the company more money, though it still received $179,900 a year as of this winter.

"Thanks for all you do and I promise to work to increase our contract with y'all when times are better!!" Cooper wrote in a July 3, 2010, email to Drusilla Bryan, managing director of Gosh P.R.

Contacted for this story, Bryan declined to comment on Cooper. She said her business had "thorough financial management systems and a strong moral business sense."

Ethics rules

Last year, the cabinet authorized Cooper to travel to France from June 12 to 22 for the Travel South International Tour Operators and Media Sales Mission. Without getting permission, he left Kentucky early and first spent several days in London, according to cabinet spending records and correspondence.

Cooper spent at least part of his time in London with Gosh P.R. executives, who paid for his taxi fare and picked up the check for meals and events, according to records. Cooper told his superiors that he and company officials met with travel writers, tour organizers and others to promote Kentucky as a destination.

For example, Cooper and two Gosh P.R. executives joined a travel specialist for dinner at The Cinnamon Club, an upscale Indian restaurant near Westminster Abbey. Dinner for four, including cocktails and wine, came to £405.23, or $667.50 in U.S. currency. It's not explained in spending records what Cooper ate or drank. His share of the bill simply was listed as one-fourth of the total, or $166.88.

In his subsequent letter to Cooper and Gosh P.R., Pollard said Cooper can expect only his travel costs to be paid directly by the state, and only if he's traveling on authorized state trips.

John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, declined to say whether his agency was investigating Cooper.

Speaking generally, Steffen said, the ethics ban on gifts from contractors is important because it's meant to prevent influence-peddling by state officials who can award contracts. The $25 limit is considered an appropriate level "so that someone can buy a state official a cup of coffee or doughnuts and not worry about violating the law," Steffen said.

"We've seen cases where state officials have taken trips or gone out at the expense of contractors," Steffen said. "In the private sector, that's actually how you do business a lot of the time, you take people out and you entertain them. But in the public sector, we don't like to see anything that looks like favor trading."

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