INEZ — Martin County Judge-Executive Willie Kirk was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the late 1960s for stealing federal relief money intended for his citizens.
It didn't matter.
President Richard Nixon, a fellow Republican, pardoned Kirk five months after the bars clanged shut behind him. Kirk returned to Martin County, where his beautician wife had been installed as his temporary replacement, and he won re-election. At the dawn of the 1980s, Kirk continued to rule over Martin County. A half-dozen Kirk relatives had joined him on the courthouse payroll.
Graft, corruption and nepotism "made a mockery" of more than $100 million in federal anti-poverty spending in Martin County from 1964 to 1981, The New York Times wrote in an extensive profile of the county in 1981.
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"By the time the money filtered through political hands in Washington, Frankfort and Inez, it sometimes turned out that little was left over for the intended recipients," the Times reported.
This was predictable. Harry Caudill, in his book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, urged the federal government to dismantle Eastern Kentucky's corrupt political machines before it plowed billions of dollars of aid into the region. That didn't happen, and by many accounts, the machines — elected leaders and their families, political allies and business partners — absorbed much of what went to the mountain counties.
"There was always terrible corruption, so locally, the level of expectation for government was always very low," said Joe Szakos, who worked in Martin County during the 1980s as a community organizer and writer. Szakos would go on to help establish the activist group now known as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Corruption thrived because hardly anybody demanded better, Szakos said.
"People weren't interested in whether anyone had a long-term vision for the community that would build us a strong economy and move us forward," Szakos said. "It was, ‘Will you put gravel on my driveway?' ‘Will you get my sister a cook's job at the school kitchen? If you do that for me, then I'll vote for you.' It was all day-to-day survival."
A Martin County official once punched Szakos in the mouth because Szakos asked to see public records showing how the county housing authority spent its federal funds.
"All of this, the corruption, the money stolen from projects, the vote-buying, was done pretty much openly," Szakos said. "I think my favorite story was from a vote-fraud case. We had a school bus driver who swore out a legal form saying he needed assistance in the voting booth because he was blind. They had to explain why their people kept going into the booth with voters. So either this fellow lied about being blind or else he was driving a school bus without being able to see where he was going."
Eastern Kentucky concluded long ago that its politicians look out for their own interests, regardless of what needs are left unmet, said Ron Eller, a noted Appalachian historian.
In his book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, Eller wrote that the Rockcastle County Economic Opportunity Council — which directed the spending of federal anti-poverty money in that community — included the county judge-executive, the school superintendent and the chairman of the county Democratic Party.
All were homegrown political bosses with a stake in who got jobs, contracts and the like.
Such arrangements were typical during the War on Poverty, Eller wrote.
"Dollars would be channeled through local institutions, where power brokers could utilize the funds for patronage purposes," Eller wrote.
The roughly 12,000 residents of Martin County regularly watch connected insiders help themselves to public funds, tapping the only honey pot available locally, other than the coal industry.
A half-dozen people pleaded guilty this past summer to stealing more than $31,000 from the water district through falsified checks arranged by a former district employee. This fall, the state auditor revealed that the county's former school superintendent improperly awarded his wife a job with the school district at $50,000 more a year than her predecessor was paid.
However, the case that won the most attention this year involved longtime Martin County Clerk Carol Sue Mills.
Mills first ran for clerk in the late 1980s with the winning campaign slogans: "Need employment, husband is disabled" and "I am a good, honest girl, I'll make a good clerk." Once in office, she hired her two daughters, Tonya and Tamberlyn, as her assistants.
Nobody gave the hirings much thought until 2012, when auditors checked the clerk's books and found that money was missing. Kentucky State Police put the stolen sum at $28,928 and identified Mills' daughters as the culprits. Each pleaded guilty to abuse of public trust and agreed to serve five years in prison, although they will be eligible for parole after nine months.
Mills said in a recent interview that she was devastated to discover her daughters embezzled. But it's common for Martin County politicians to hire their families, she added.
"Our county judge employs his wife. Our sheriff has his daughter working for him," Mills said. "It's just the practice."
Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham is a funeral home director whose courthouse post provides him with $84,915 a year in salary and incentive pay. As Mills said, Callaham employs his wife, Donna, as county finance officer for $34,504 a year. Separately, the county pays $23,473 to a certified public accountant to serve as treasurer.
Martin County's ethics policy allows politicians to hire one immediate family member, said Callaham, whose father was judge-executive before him. Mills took office before the policy was enacted, so both of her daughters were allowed to stay on the courthouse payroll, he said.
"I tried getting the fiscal court to do zero. They wanted two. We settled on one," Callaham said.