Politics & Government

Ex-state lawmaker Keith Hall sentenced to seven years in prison

Former state Rep. W. Keith Hall left the federal courthouse in Lexington on Thursday, March 24, 2016, after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for bribing a state mine inspector.
Former state Rep. W. Keith Hall left the federal courthouse in Lexington on Thursday, March 24, 2016, after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for bribing a state mine inspector. jcheves@herald-leader.com

A judge sentenced former state Rep. W. Keith Hall on Thursday to seven years in prison for bribing a state inspector whom he arranged to be assigned to his Pike County coal mines.

U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell ordered Hall, 56, to report to prison May 18. Hall asked to serve his time in a federal prison relatively close to his current home in Frankfort, possibly the minimum-security section of the Federal Medical Center in Lexington. Hall also must pay the government a $25,000 fine and, upon his release, spend two years on supervised release and perform 200 hours of community service.

“This is a serious offense, and serious punishment is warranted,” Caldwell told Hall, who sat with a grim but steady face. “It is necessary that lawmakers respect the law.”

A Pikeville jury convicted Hall of bribery last June after a five-day trial.

Hall, a Democrat, represented Pike County in the Kentucky House for 14 years, until his defeat in 2014. He also owned surface mines around his district. In 2009 and 2010, Hall paid or otherwise arranged for about $46,000 to go to Kelly Shortridge, an inspector with the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, in order to get favorable treatment on mining violations.

Asking for a tough punishment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor told the judge that Hall was a public official who abused his position. House Democrats named Hall the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and the chairman of a special House committee on energy. That gave him authority over the state’s mine regulatory agencies, Taylor said.

“He had the ability in real ways to affect the career of Shortridge, and Shortridge in real ways had the ability to affect his coal operations,” Taylor said. “Theirs was a symbiotic relationship. They could scratch each other’s backs.”

He betrayed the trust he owed his friends and neighbors in Pike County. He did so for personal gain, and he did so in such a way that really jeopardized the health and safety of his constituents, who had great trust in him to protect them. So we think the sentence properly reflects the severity of the crime.

U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey

Brent Caldwell, one of Hall’s attorneys, asked the judge for a lenient prison sentence and small fine. Hall will be well into his 60s when he is released, with a felony conviction marring his prospects and his active working years behind him, Caldwell said. Also, Hall, who once was the prosperous owner of assorted businesses around Pike County, recently concluded a divorce from his wife that left his finances in shambles, the lawyer added.

“At the heart of the matter, Keith is a good man,” Caldwell said. “He’s made some decisions that put him where he is today. Looking backwards, some of those were not wise decisions.”

Shortridge, the inspector, pleaded guilty last year to soliciting a bribe. He is scheduled to report to prison March 30 for a two-year sentence.

During Hall’s trial, Shortridge testified that Hall helped him establish a corporation, DKJ Consulting, in his wife’s name, for the sole purpose of receiving bribes. In exchange, Shortridge ignored or delayed citing violations and allowed Hall to auger-mine coal outside the permitted area.

“That was a lot of money I was being paid, and I believed I was being paid it to give favors any time they were asked to be given,” Shortridge testified.

Hall had a history of ethics violations while in the General Assembly and earlier, as a member of the Pike County school board, from which he was forced to resign during a state investigation into his alleged role in improperly influencing school district hiring.

Even as Hall helped write coal mining laws, he held the permits on mines with a repetitive pattern of safety and environmental violations. His Beech Creek Coal Co. and other companies mining coal on his permits were cited for dropping rocks on nearby homes; mining outside of permitted areas; water pollution; failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds; and allowing rock, dirt and trees to slide down slopes.

Yet state officials under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appeared reluctant to penalize Hall or shut down his operations. In 2013, despite what they called a “pattern of violations” on Hall’s mining permits, state officials gave Hall technical approval to triple the size of one of his troubled mining operations, from 183 to 674 acres.

The Herald-Leader first reported in 2013 on a history of unresolved safety and environmental violations at Hall’s surface mines and on his personal relationship with Shortridge.

On two occasions, different commissioners of the state Department for Natural Resources who were worried about a cozy relationship between the two men felt compelled to reassign Shortridge away from Hall’s mines. After one of those reassignments, Shortridge angrily declared he might “go postal” on his workmates, drawing a 15-day suspension for threatening workplace violence. Another time, he quietly asked the inspector who got Hall’s mines to trade with him. The other inspector agreed.

In 2012, Hall complained to Billy Ratliff, then the state’s director of mine reclamation and enforcement, that he had paid Shortridge an undisclosed sum for a local Little League team, but that the inspector was demanding more money from him. The Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation. Hall refused to be interviewed, and Shortridge denied any wrongdoing.

The cabinet let the matter drop, with an inspector general’s report drawing no conclusions on Hall’s complaint. The Herald-Leader obtained the report through the Kentucky Open Records Act and published it. After federal prosecutors read about the report in the newspaper, an investigation was opened, and Hall and Shortridge were later indicted.

Hall’s “breach of public trust” was worse than the typical bribery case involving a politician, U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said after the sentencing.

“He betrayed the trust he owed his friends and neighbors in Pike County,” Harvey said. “He did so for personal gain, and he did so in such a way that really jeopardized the health and safety of his constituents, who had great trust in him to protect them. So we think the sentence properly reflects the severity of the crime.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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