Stumbo stumbles in ethics case; Hall keeps power

In October, when the Legislative Ethics Commission reprimanded and fined Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, for what amounted to self-dealing with the state budget, House Speaker Greg Stumbo sounded less than enthusiastic about meting out further punishment within his chamber. He said he'd wait to see the commission's report before deciding on a course of action, or inaction.

The House could have reprimanded Hall or stripped him of desirable committee seats.

Last week, with a new legislative session about to start, Stumbo, Hall's fellow mountain politician, made it official: the House won't do anything.

Hall will keep his spot on the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, a powerful position where he's involved in deciding how the state's money can be spent. Hall's recent ethics problems stemmed from some of those decisions, including appropriating state money for a Pike County sewer project that gave more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts to one of Hall's companies. The limit for a no-bid contract is $20,000, but no worry, Hall's B.M.M. Inc split up the work into a series of invoices of $20,000 or less,

The Ethics Commission's action, including a $2,000 fine, was the stiffest discipline it's handed out to a lawmaker in over a decade. Under the Kentucky Constitution, the legislative houses have the right to discipline their own members so the matter was then handed over to Stumbo.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, a powerful, canny politician who as attorney general pursued ethics violations in the administration of former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, dismissed his power to discipline his fellow House member as if it had simply vanished: "I believe the commission's ruling stands as the final judgment in this matter."

But it didn't vanish; Stumbo chose to do nothing.

It was a very bad choice.

The signal Stumbo is sending to citizens is that what happens in Frankfort is a closed game, one played by a handful of politicians and their enablers; we ordinary citizens should just pay our taxes and stay out of the General Assembly's business.

No wonder voter participation is at historic lows.