It was a violation of the Kentucky Open Meetings Act for Gov. Matt Bevin to send state police to a May 19 meeting of the Kentucky Retirement Systems board of trustees and threaten to arrest the board chairman if he participated, Attorney General Andy Beshear said in an opinion released Tuesday.
Bevin sent police with his chief of staff, Blake Brickman, and Personnel Secretary Thomas Stephens to threaten to arrest Thomas K. Elliott, whom Bevin has been trying to remove from the board, and to interfere with board leadership elections scheduled for that day, Beshear said. Several armed troopers stood in the KRS board room during the day’s meeting.
Another board member who was interested in running for chairman, Vince Lang, was warned by Stephens that “the administration would immediately initiate an investigation” if he sought the post, Beshear said. The board decided to postpone its leadership elections because of pressure from the governor’s office and police, Beshear said.
Public agencies must be allowed to conduct open meetings free from harassment, Beshear said in his opinion.
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“A behind-closed-door indication of arrest if a board member attempts to participate, or of an investigation of a board member who potentially may seek election as chair, made with the intent to alter decisions or behavior related to a public meeting for public business, violates the mandate that public business not be conducted in secret,” Beshear said.
“Moreover, the presence of multiple law enforcement officers, who can effectuate an arrest, at the request of someone other than the agency head or a quorum of the board, equates to conducting public business through force. Neither scenario has a place in a democratic government that must be open,” he said.
Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper said Beshear’s opinion “comes as no surprise given his political motivations. Instead of focusing on ways to move the commonwealth forward, he continues to do the opposite.”
KRS, which oversees state and local government pensions, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The opinion was requested not by KRS but by Jim Carroll, a frequent attendee of KRS meetings who heads a state retiree watchdog group.
“We hope that this decision will ensure that future meetings will be conducted transparently and free of disruption from outside parties (who have) no standing in the conduct of KRS meetings or any role in the board’s deliberations,” Carroll said. “Today’s ruling signaled a victory for fiduciary independence.”
Beshear’s opinion is the latest volley in a back-and-forth struggle for control of several state boards and commissions between Bevin, the Republican governor, and Beshear, other Democrats and their allies.
Elliott, a Louisville banker, was re-appointed to another four-year term on the KRS board last year by then-Gov. Steve Beshear. Bevin issues an executive order in April removing Elliott from the board and appointing Madisonville dermatologist William F. Smith in his place. State police were sent to the KRS meeting in May to prevent Elliott from continuing to act as a board member, Stamper said.
“In light of Mr. Elliott’s previous disregard of the valid executive order removing him from the board, precautions were taken to ensure there was no disruption to the public meeting,” Stamper said.
Andy Beshear — Steve Beshear’s son — countered Bevin’s executive order with an opinion finding that the governor was not entitled to remove an appointee mid-term, and that his appointee lacked the professional investment or financial experience legally required for the appointment.
Bevin dismissed Andy Beshear’s opinion as “non-binding” and “politically motivated,” but Smith declined the appointment, anyway.