Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper resigned Wednesday following days of controversy over a $179,900-a-year contract he oversaw with a British marketing firm that touted "Roadkill Bingo" as one of the state's tourist attractions.
On Tuesday, the Herald-Leader reported that Cooper allowed the firm, Gosh P.R., to pay $735 for his meals, event tickets and other expenses during an unauthorized trip he took to London, England, in June. That was a violation of state ethics law and the cabinet instructed him to repay the money.
The newspaper also noted that a Web site Gosh P.R. used to promote Kentucky tourist attractions to the British contained factual errors and offensive stereotypes about Kentucky.
Officials at the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet said they were offended by some of the Web site's content, including a snarky article about Roadside Bingo, a car game in which motorists count the dead animals along Kentucky highways.
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After ordering the Web site disabled on Tuesday, the cabinet on Wednesday scrapped Gosh P.R.'s contract. The firm has collected $647,769 since winning the contract in 2008. The Web site alone cost the state about $20,000 a year.
"We just decided that it was in the best interest of the commonwealth to cancel the contract," cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson said Wednesday.
Hours later, Cooper announced that he's resigining his $111,353-a-year post effective March 15. As a political appointee, Cooper served at the pleasure of Gov. Steve Beshear.
"Gosh P.R. has performed excellently for us in the past," Cooper said in a statement. "However, in the case of the Web site, they made serious errors. It was my responsibility to catch those errors. I did not and believe at this time that the best course of action is for me to resign."
Cooper, of Lexington, was a political event organizer for Beshear's campaign and the Kentucky Democratic Party in 2007. Beshear named Cooper tourism commissioner in December 2007, which allowed him to travel widely at state expense while he was responsible for helping the state's tourism industry.
Since 2009, Cooper has been suspended without pay for five days and reprimanded in writing by cabinet officials for his unauthorized travel and improper personal use of his state-issued credit card, according to state records.
Although Lawson said this week that cabinet officials were offended by what they discovered on Gosh's Web site after the Herald-Leader's news stories, state email records show that Cooper and his staff monitored the site and occasionally suggested corrections.
For example, in a March 5, 2010 email, Cooper's deputy, Hank Phillips, told Gosh P.R. that it needed to fix a reference to the Kentucky Derby being held at Keeneland in Lexington. In fact, the Derby is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Phillips wrote, sending a copy of his note to Cooper.
"All looks good with (that) one exception," Phillips wrote. "I really like the site, especially the edginess of it. I wish we could get away with that over here!"
The Roadkill Bingo article wasn't added to the site until late 2011, Lawson said Wednesday. Cabinet officials are reviewing who in Frankfort, if anyone, was responsible for monitoring that content, which was considered particularly inflammatory, he said.
The article said, in part: "For the jackpot, however, it has to be a skunk; 10 points. Not because they are rare — they are not — but because when you drive slowly over a freshly killed one, it absolutely stinks. If you have the windows open or the sunroof up, award double points because the smell is overpowering. With the windows down you are at one with nature for some time: the smell — and it's as bad as the cartoons make out — stays in your car for up to five miles."
Lawson said the cabinet doesn't know whether it will award another contract in the United Kingdom to promote Kentucky tourism. Aside from its Web site, Gosh P.R. arranged state-subsidized media junkets for British travel writers who wanted to see Kentucky.
It was helping Cooper to plan the state's publicity events at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London until the Herald-Leader asked about the cost. On Monday, the cabinet canceled the Olympics outing, citing budget constraints.
The money spent on British marketing is indefensible, said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.
"The fact that the state of Kentucky has spent close to $700,000 with a company that wants to bill us as the Roadkill Grill is just a ridiculous example of how we waste taxpayer dollars in Frankfort," Robertson said.
Drusilla Bryan, managing director of Gosh P.R., offered Kentuckians an apology.
"We love the state of Kentucky," Bryan wrote via email Wednesday. "We fully appreciate that this article may have caused offense, for which we apologize and are very sorry. It was never our intention to create upset. Our focus was always on promoting Kentucky to the UK market."