Firing of a good public watchdog

Big shoes await David Ray's successor as the state Transportation Cabinet's inspector general.

Ray, who was fired without explanation by the Beshear administration, was an effective watchdog in a corner of state government where the bywords have too often been "waste, fraud and abuse."

Appointed by former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Ray, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, was scrupulously non-partisan and probed wrongdoing by the Fletcher administration that helped Democrat Steve Beshear unseat an incumbent governor. Ray's work also helped lead to the federal indictment of highway contractor Leonard Lawson, who was later acquitted of all charges.

On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock appointed Cindy James, a top assistant to former state Auditor Crit Luallen, as his special assistant with responsibilities for audits and investigations and overseeing compliance with federal laws. She will also serve as acting inspector general.

James has a sterling reputation, and Beshear has shown a sincere interest in cleaning up and right-sizing highway building. Still, taxpayers and Transportation employees need to be reassured the cabinet is not backsliding.

Transportation manages billions of dollars coveted by highway contractors. The cabinet also controls jobs in places desperate for them. The potential for misusing money and power is huge. So is the need for an aggressive inspector general.

As a political appointee outside the merit system, Ray could be fired without cause or explanation.

Ray has declined to say why he thinks he was fired, telling The Courier-Journal's Tom Loftus, "I'd rather not say at this point because we've got some active investigations going on, and I don't want to jeopardize those investigations."

The public needs to know that those investigations won't be jeopardized and that there is no effort to cover up wrongdoing in the Transportation Cabinet.