Politics & Government

Kentucky assistant attorney general retires after reprimand for talking to reporter

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear on Monday April 11, 2016 in Frankfort, Ky.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear on Monday April 11, 2016 in Frankfort, Ky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

A longtime champion of Kentucky’s government transparency laws retired Wednesday from Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office after she was reprimanded for speaking with a journalist.

“I came to this decision under considerable duress,” Assistant Attorney General Amye L. Bensenhaver, 58, wrote last month to Beshear. “It is clear to me I cannot survive, much less thrive, in the current office climate, and I have similar concerns about the open records/meetings laws.”

Bensenhaver was rebuked in a formal letter July 11 for giving an interview to retired editor John Nelson for a story he wrote in June on the 40th anniversary of the state’s Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act. Nelson’s story, commissioned by the Kentucky Press Association, ran in the Herald-Leader and other newspapers around the state. Bensenhaver had spent 25 years writing open records and open meetings decisions on behalf of the attorney general, whose word carries the weight of law on those subjects.

“You were quoted and cited as a representative of the Office of the Attorney General to the media, activity that falls outside the scope of your job duties, and without permission to do so,” La Tasha Buckner, executive director of the attorney general’s Office of Civil and Environmental Law, wrote to Bensenhaver. “Your actions in regards to Mr. Nelson’s article on the Open Records/Open Meetings Act have severely damaged your credibility and the trust that this office must have in you as an attorney.”

In an interview Thursday, Bensenhaver said she had hoped to stay at the attorney general’s office for another five years. But she felt pressured to leave because her superiors under Beshear kept interfering in the open government decisions for which she was responsible, ordering changes that did not strengthen the transparency laws. The reprimand was the last straw, she said.

“I really did enjoy this work and I felt fortunate to do it for 25 years — or at least, for most of the last 25 years,” she said. “But I didn’t want to be put in a position where I was forced to make compromises in this important law that I helped to build.”

In a statement, Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian called Bensenhaver “a valuable member of the attorney general’s office” but added that “it’s our policy not to discuss personnel issues.” Speaking generally, Sebastian said, reporters’ questions are supposed to be directed to the attorney general’s Office of Communications, which he runs.

Under Kentucky’s open government laws, most activities involving taxpayer funds must be conducted in public. Reporters and other curious citizens who are stonewalled by government officials routinely file appeals with the attorney general asking for a legal opinion. More often than not, a favorable ruling from the attorney general will pry loose the information in question.

David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, said Nelson called Bensenhaver for his story on the 40th anniversary of the laws because she is considered one of the state’s leading experts. Thompson said he occasionally had his own conversations with Bensenhaver when he wanted clarification about what records or meetings should be available to the public.

“Here she is, someone who devotes herself day in and day out to open government, and she literally gets in trouble for talking to a reporter about open government,” Thompson said. “I hate to see her go.”

Jon Fleischaker, a First Amendment lawyer in Louisville who helped write the state’s open government laws, said he admired Bensenhaver’s work.

“She’s been valuable,” Fleischaker said. “She knows a lot about the legal technicalities of the open records and open meetings acts. She knows a lot about the attorney general’s involvement and past decisions because she’s been involved with them for such a long time.”

Bensenhaver’s departure is the latest controversy for Beshear, who has been attorney general for less than a year. His top deputy, Tim Longmeyer, resigned and pleaded guilty in April to soliciting more than $200,000 in bribes during an earlier stint as state personnel secretary. Then, in May, Don Pasley resigned as head of Beshear’s Office of Initiatives after a drunken driving arrest in Woodford County.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics