Last week state Auditor Mike Harmon held a press conference to release the results of his office’s examination of the Kentucky Horse Park.
The examination found, and Harmon highlighted, some very troubling things at KHP, including a too-cozy relationship between the park and the private foundation created to support it; inconsistencies in the park’s management of sponsorships; shoddy or nonexistent record-keeping; evidence of conflicts of interest and favoritism; and failure to follow appropriate bidding and contracting practices in several areas.
It’s clear that management, board and state oversight has been ineffective. That’s bad for any public institution and especially for one so critical to Kentucky’s tourism industry and which represents our important equine heritage.
There is a lot of work for Laura Prewitt, the Horse Park’s fourth executive director since 2014 (one was an interim who served for only six months), to set this important public resource back on the right track.
It is not at all clear in the audit — which reaches back in some places 10 years, in others seven and in others for only two or three — whether things have gone wrong through intent, ignorance or carelessness. However, the fact that the problems persisted means the Tourism Cabinet and board that oversee the work of the new executive director must stay focused on creating a structure that fixes them and prevents reocurrences.
To achieve long-term reform they will have to serve only the public interest and avoid the partisan politics that have swirled around the Horse Park recently.
To make a long story short, the Horse Park was closely associated with former Gov. Steve Beshear, whose wife Jane, a lifelong equestrian, has served on the board of both the park and the related foundation. She was also on the board of directors for the 2010 Alltech EEI World Equestrian Games hosted at the Horse Park. When longtime executive director John Nicholson resigned in 2014, he was succeeded, after about six months under an interim director, by Jamie Link who was deputy chief of staff for Gov. Beshear.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin upended the Horse Park board, installing a group of his own. Also last year, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown attacked Link and called for an audit. During his short tenure, Link had improved the financial performance of the Horse Park, reducing the subsidy required from the General Fund, and instituted other reforms although clearly he did not put out all the fires he found.
Bevin’s new board chose not to renew Link’s contract last June, replacing him after a little over 18 months on the job with Prewitt.
Auditors are politicians, they run as party candidates in statewide elections and the office is often used as a political stepping stone. But in the past when auditors have released findings they’ve focused on the issues at hand, keeping politics at bay, if not completely absent.
Auditors and the work of their professional staffs have been the only sources quoted in news releases about their findings.
Harmon should follow that admirable lead.
In September, releasing a less politically charged audit of the Department of Criminal Justice Training and the fund that supports it, he added comments from Justice Secretary John Tilley, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Denny Butler, both of whom had requested the audit. “For more than a year and a half I pushed for an audit,” Butler is quoted as saying.
In releasing the Horse Park audit results, Harmon was a good team player again, quoting the secretary of the tourism cabinet and Pruitt herself as well as Thayer. Here again, the legislator got to crow, in Thayer’s case about “problems within the Kentucky Horse Park that I brought to light during last year’s legislative session.”
Harmon, a Republican, rode into office on the same tide that made Bevin governor and, ultimately, gave their party overwhelming majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. But as auditor he’s not on their team; his only team is Kentucky’s taxpayers.
Harmon must leave his party affiliation at the door. Doing otherwise threatens to damage his legacy and, worse, undermine the professionalism of the important office he leads.