Politics & Government

Ethics a key issue in hotly contested Democratic primary for E. Ky. state House seat

Republicans eager to take control of the state House are closely watching the May 20 Democratic primary in Kentucky's 93rd House district, which covers eastern Pike County and Martin County. Not because they'll have a candidate for the Nov. 4 election — they won't — but because they're curious to see whether Democrats send Rep. W. Keith Hall of Phelps back to the House for an eighth term.

Controversy long has dogged Hall, and his stumbles can be used effectively in GOP advertisements across the state this fall, said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky.

In 2011, the Legislative Ethics Commission fined Hall $2,000 after one of his companies won $171,000 in no-bid sewer line projects that he voted to include in the state budget. More recently, state and federal investigators have examined Hall's ties to a former coal mine inspector to whom Hall — a coal operator — once claimed he gave an unspecified sum of money.

Hall holds a desired legislative chairmanship, as did Rep. John Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis, who resigned last year after he was accused of sexually harassing several legislative aides.

"Some of the ethics problems the Democratic caucus has could come back to bite it on Election Day," Robertson said. "It's clear there isn't any policing inside the caucus. That feeds into the public perception that our elected officials are there primarily to help themselves, and serving the public is something of an afterthought, if that."

In a recent interview, Hall, 54, denied unethical behavior. He said he's running for re-election on a record of bringing money to an oft-overlooked corner of the state, one that's much closer to West Virginia's capital than Kentucky's.

"I own six companies that employ 93 people in the district," Hall said.

"I'm currently working to bring 500 jobs to Eastern Kentucky through a coal-to-ethanol project," Hall said. "We've gotten five new schools funded during my 14 years in Frankfort, we're working to get a new school gym for the kids at Kemper and a new $8 million to $10 million sportsplex facility for Phelps, with athletic fields and a track. ... There's almost $400 million for my 93rd district in the six-year road plan."

Hall's challenger is Chris Harris, 42, a lawyer who represents their section of Pike County as a magistrate on the fiscal court.

Harris led a court battle to open spending records at Utility Management Group, a company that manages Pike County's water and sewer systems, finally losing because the legislature amended the Kentucky Open Records Act in a way that shields such companies. (UMG executive Greg May and his wife gave $2,000 to Hall's campaign in March.) Harris also is a longtime board member at the Kentucky Association of Counties, calling for reforms when the Herald-Leader and the state auditor revealed misspending there in 2009.

"Chris Harris works for the people of his district very diligently," said Joshua Leonard, a Pikeville dentist who lives in eastern Pike County and supports Harris. "He has impressed me."

In his House campaign this year, Harris casts himself as a reformer. He opens one television commercial by declaring: "For years, Keith Hall has used our tax dollars to line his own pockets. But there's a new day coming."

Harris said he decided to run for the House because "I got tired of being embarrassed by the continued corruption of our current legislator."

"It seems like every time you open the newspaper there's another scandal involving Representative Hall, whether it's that he's claimed more in expenses than anyone else in the legislature or that he's spilled chemicals into the local drinking water," Harris said. "He's a smooth talker. But I think more and more people here are coming to learn that you can't believe everything he says."

'Get stuff done'

Hall served on the Pike County Board of Education during the 1990s. He was suspended for eight months and ultimately forced to resign in 1999 during a state probe into his alleged attempts to improperly influence the awarding of school district jobs. He and two other school board members, both of whom also resigned, were called the "Gang of Three" by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability, which investigated them.

Voters nonetheless sent Hall to the state House in 2000. They've sent him back every two years since. His seniority has allowed him to rise to the chairmanship of the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee and the vice chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee, where he helps regulate the coal industry in which he owns companies.

Hall might be a source of controversy in the state's newspapers, but he's something of a folk hero in his House district, said Larry Webster, a Pikeville lawyer and longtime political observer who said he supports neither Hall nor Harris.

"Keith Hall is from an area of Pike County where people kind of feel looked down on. So when he gained some money and fame, even some notoriety from his mistakes, he made people feel proud of him," said Webster, who writes a column about Eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Also, you have to remember — people up here don't hold their politicians to all that high of an ethical standard," Webster said, chuckling. "I always say that everyone says they want honest politicians. But then they also want that one guy they can see to get stuff done when they need it."

Harris raised more

As of April 18, when the most recent campaign-finance disclosures were due, Harris looked ready to give Hall a formidable challenge.

Harris had raised $57,025 and had $32,586 on hand, with scores of small donors around Pike and Martin counties. Harris also got $1,000 each from Martin County's judge-executive and deputy judge-executive, suggesting courthouse support in the northern end of the 93rd district. Hall had raised $40,432 and had $26,052 on hand, of which $24,066 came from himself, $5,416 carried forward from his last campaign and several thousand more came from out-of-state business associates who cannot vote for him.

At their only debate of the campaign, held in Pikeville last month, Harris confronted Hall with accusations about his background, including the 2011 ethics sanction.

"I'm going to do my very best to get rid of the corruption, to get rid of the greed, to get rid of the self-dealing and the pocket-lining," Harris said.

Although Hall agreed to accept the ethics sanction three years ago, he told the debate audience that he did nothing wrong by taking no-bid contracts for sewer line projects using coal severance money he helped put in the state budget.

"I had every right to negotiate professional services," Hall said. "Professional services is engineers, plumbers, electricians, CPAs, architects, those types of people. I didn't have to bid that project."

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